Yale, city look to lose pounds

375,000 pounds in two years.

That’s how much weight a joint Yale-New Haven public health initiative is asking city residents to lose as part of an obesity awareness effort launched Wednesday. The initiative — organized under Get Healthy Connecticut and carried out by the Yale School of Public Health, Yale-New Haven Hospital and the City of New Haven — seeks to unify existing infrastructure in the city to encourage healthy eating and physical activity. Marta Moret SPH ’84, president of a policy think tank Urban Policy Strategies and wife of Yale President Peter Salovey, is helping to lead the project.

“The inspiration is the severity of our chronic diseases in New Haven that are driven in large part by obesity, which is driven by the unhealthy culture that we’ve developed in America,” said Jon Atherton, director of strategy for Community Alliance for Research & Engagement, or CARE, at the School of Public Health. “This initiative is a connecting point for all the stuff that is already happening, recognizing that without being connected, we won’t have the same impact that we need.”

On Wednesday, Moret joined representatives from New Haven’s Community Services Administration, the Yale School of Public Health and Yale-New Haven Hospital to launch the project at Beulah Heights First Episcopal Church, as town and gown came together to address obesity and obesity-related health problems in the city.

Moret heralded a coming “health revolution” that would mobilize local businesses and nonprofits in the fight for affordable health care and access to healthy nutrition. New Haven could become a “model for the nation” in nutrition best practices, she said in a statement, through the “widest possible partnership for better health in our city.”

Similar initiatives have seen success in other cities, said Roberta Friedman, director of public policy at the Yale Rudd Center, a nonprofit dedicated to improving food policy. Expanding access to healthful foods is the type of environmental change that improves health outcomes, Friedman said, adding that the Rudd Center will help out “as much as we can.”

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for New Haven to focus on improving environments so that we can bring down the rates of obesity-related chronic diseases,” she said. “I think this is going to be a very important initiative.”

In the past, some public health initiatives in the city have been “too quick to assume an agenda,” and Atherton said the working groups take the opposite approach by “getting around the table” to debate the best approach to improving obesity and chronic disease in New Haven.

The initiative is working to develop a website and iPhone app where city residents will input their measurements of weight loss and physical activity can be tracked. The website will also list the services the initiative is gathering to support weight loss around nutrition and physical activity in New Haven, Atherton said.

Surveys conducted by CARE in 2009 and 2012 found that residents in New Haven’s lowest-income neighborhoods reported drastically poorer health than Connecticut residents reported statewide, said Althea Marshall Brooks, New Haven Community Service Administrator.

Lack of access to healthy foods and inadequate exercise drive the city’s obesity problem and contribute to heart disease and diabetes, the report confirmed.

Brooks said asking the city to slim down by thousands of pounds seems gimmicky, but is effective in “engaging residents around a tangible goal.”

She said the precise figure — 375,000 pounds — pays homage to the 375th anniversary of the Elm City, which was founded in 1638 by English Puritans.

“It is a fun challenge,” Brooks said. “But also an immensely important one.”

According to a 2012 survey by CARE, 43 percent of New Haven residents are obese, compared to 23 percent statewide.

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