Portland tackles childhood obesity with four school fitness courses

Posted May 21, 2012, at 6:51 p.m.
Taja Wilkins, 9, a fourth-grader at the Ocean Avenue School in Portland, leapfrogs over a post in a new fitness course at the school Monday, May 21, 2012.
Taja Wilkins, 9, a fourth-grader at the Ocean Avenue School in Portland, leapfrogs over a post in a new fitness course at the school Monday, May 21, 2012. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — Local officials on Monday celebrated the opening of four schoolyard fitness courses, a project representing the end of two years and $1.8 million in federal grant investments in healthy living initiatives in the city.

The news conference at Ocean Avenue Elementary School on Monday afternoon was the latest and likely final event in a two-year series of public celebrations for projects such as local exercise videos featuring professional athletes and children’s book-themed StoryWalks. The common thread through all of these projects is that they were funded in part by a $1.8 million federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant secured by the Portland Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Division.

“We spend a lot of time in this state talking about epidemics,” Mayor Michael Brennan, backed by about 40 of the school’s students, said during the news conference. “Every time we pick up a paper or turn on the television, you hear about an epidemic worse than before. The simple fact is, we have a problem — in this city, in this county and in this state — with obesity.”

Brennan also used the occasion to reiterate his disappointment with cuts to the Fund for a Healthy Maine included in the recently passed state budget which will result in $250,000 less in state funding for healthy living programs in Portland.

In Maine’s largest city, officials made their $1.8 million in topical grant money count, rolling out one high-profile initiative after another over the two-year grant period. Among the efforts tied to the grant were: an opening of the city’s farmers’ markets to food stamps; the installation of more than 500 signs directing people to the city’s publicly accessible trails; the introduction of calorie information on the menus of participating restaurants; the purchase of locally grown foods and new salad bars for public schools; the production of 10,000 maps of the city’s free and low-cost play areas; and an initiative to require healthful food and physical activity at after-school and child care programs.

In addition to the fitness course at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, similar courses were installed at Peaks Island, Reiche and Riverton elementary schools, as well as an adult course at the Back Cove Trail.

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