Federal Funds Fight the Fat

Florida's Pinellas County is a test case for nascent government efforts against obesity in kids, and the results have been encouraging

By Pallavi Gogoi

In March, 2004, Dan Marino's, a casual dining steak and pasta house in St. Petersburg, Fla., owned by the legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback, retooled its menu. In addition to the regular fare of burgers, hot dogs, and fries, Corporate Chef Thomas Costello decided to offer kids an expanded choice of lunch and dinner options like grilled salmon or chicken with steamed corn and green beans, a side salad, and a dessert choice of fruit skewers with orange slices, pineapple chunks, and strawberries.

Costello was shocked at diners' positive response, as were most of the restaurant employees. "Now, 40% of our customers' orders are for the healthier kids' fare," he says.


  The experiment probably wouldn't have happened were it not for $2.8 million in federal grants to fight obesity in Pinellas County, home of St. Petersburg. The grants over two years have helped to pay the salary of Marla Short, nutrition coordinator, who approached Costello and other restaurant honchos last February with some menu-change suggestions.

Short allows that this is tricky business. "We don't want to tell restaurants how to run their business," she says. Short has so far managed to convince 90 other restaurants in the county to change their menus. As thanks for their participation in the program, restaurants get a "Healthy Hero" sticker to display in their storefronts and a mention on local TV ads.

With the federal money, the county is also fighting obesity with free pilates, yoga, and weight-management classes, adding nutritional information to children's school curriculums, and signing up doctors to identify and work with overweight patients.


  All this hustle in St. Petersburg is being watched closely by outsiders and the federal government. The county is one of 22 communities that received a total of $35.7 million in 2004 from the U.S. Health & Human Services Dept. as part of a social experiment to fight obesity and related diseases. The goal, says HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson: To build "a healthier nation by motivating Americans to eat nutritious foods and be physically active."

Thompson chose to target obesity, diabetes, and asthma not just because of their increasing prevalence in the U.S. All are diseases that individuals can control -- and even prevent in some cases -- with exercise and diet. He points out that the number of people with diabetes nationally has nearly doubled in the past decade to 18.2 million, and the number of obese Americans has increased more than 50% over the past two decades. The grants, dubbed "Steps to a Healthier U.S.," are part of a three-year experiment started last year, when 12 communities received the funds.

The government grants are piddling compared with the huge sums corporate giants spend promoting their products. In 2003, Procter & Gamble (PG ) spent $30 million just on advertising its Pringles potato crisps, while Coke (KO ) spent $130 million on its Coca-Cola Classic brand alone, according to ad tracker TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.


  But the favorable responses in places like Pinellas County suggest that a little government nudging, along with popular interest and support, can produce significant habit changes. The local YMCA runs free exercise classes with growing wait lists, and the local hospital offers weight-management lessons for free. Doctors are encouraged to measure patients' body mass index, along with weight and blood pressure, to catch the onset of obesity and treat it early. In the past year, six local elementary schools have added a salad bar and eliminated sugary desserts.

Educational efforts are expanding, too. The local food vendor for schools, Bliss Produce, puts up a stand periodically in the schools showcasing interesting edibles like star and kiwi fruits. Schools have also included nutrition education with a program dubbed "the organ-wise guys." "The curriculum shows children in a fun way what different foods can do to the different body organs," says Lisa Ross, school coordinator for the so-called Steps program.

Middle and high school students are creating videos to be broadcast, starting in December, on local-access TV. One show is about a student playing a chef, shopping at a local grocery store, and reading labels for nutritional content and other factors. Additional programs will include interviews of local fast-food vendors and managers answering questions on what they've done to provide healthier foods to the public, and some footage will feature kids cooking a healthy meal.


  The county has spent $60,000 in the past year marketing its efforts and is now increasing that budget to $300,000 for the coming year. Ads proclaim that 57% of the county is overweight or obese, and they urge residents to start moving and taking advantage of all these programs. "We have paid for 49 spots on TV, but we get triple the air time from the station for free," says Pamela Page-Bellis, the program's marketing coordinator.

Will all this social engineering work? Targeted schools have started measuring students' body mass index, administered flexibility tests, and kept records since May, 2004. After the three-year grant ends, the county will compare these measurements with those of children from schools without the programs.

If successful, Pinellas County could be a blueprint for similar government initiatives in the future. Chef Costello, for one, is a believer. He has implemented the healthier kids' menu options at the five other Dan Marino's restaurants across Florida, from Orlando to Miami. Costello is the father of two young children himself, so he knows how important it is to teach kids to eat well. What's not to like about grilled chicken, salad, and a fruit medley for dessert?

Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Thane Peterson

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