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Rebecca Halleck/MEDILL

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett tells area innovators how he took his town from fat to fit. He spoke at the Green Town conference in Naperville Thursday.

Proposed daycare guidelines combat Illinois childhood obesity

by Rebecca Halleck
Apr 25, 2013

Daycare efforts such as limiting “screen time” and swapping whole milk for 2 percent helped lower obesity in children entering Chicago Public Schools.

Innovators discussed both the challenges and successes they encountered along the way at the Green Town conference in Naperville Thursday as policy leaders met to spread Chicago standards statewide.

A statewide policy would make standards mandatory - rather than voluntary - in Chicago and the rest of Illinois. 

“Obesity is hard to face head-on,” says Paul Zientarski, learning-readiness PE coordinator for Naperville’s 203 School District. “We have this denial as a community. It’s always ‘them,’ never us.”

Yet one in five Chicago children is already obese by the time they start kindergarten, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. Forcing educators, physicians and administrators such as Tom Browning of the Illinois Action for Children to answer the difficult question: “How do you tell a parent that their kid is obese?”

“The biggest challenge we faced was just getting people to talk about it,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett told conference attendees. Men's Fitness magazine labeled his town as one of the fattest cities in the U.S. in 2007. “I finally had a moment as a leader—if not me, then who?” Cornett says he himself was obese at the time.

So, to break the silence, Cornett stood in front of the zoo’s elephant exhibit and told residents: “We’re going on a diet.” Now, five years later, Oklahoma City is one of the fittest cities in the country according to the same 2012 list. 

Residents have collectively lost over 1 million pounds through measures including changing the infrastructure of roads to allow for walkers and bikers, improving inner-city school programs, and even changing the flow of a river through downtown to allow for increased kayaking and canoeing.

Representatives from DCFS, the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children and the Illinois Action for Children are working together to address the obesity epidemic through new guidelines for early childhood day care facilities.

The proposed guidelines would include limiting “screen time” as much as possible, specifically video games, cartoons and food advertisements, while maximizing physical activity both inside and outdoors. They also include substituting whole milk with 2 percent, eliminating drinks with added sugars and limiting juice intake to just 4 ounces per day.

When these guidelines first showed up in day cares parents complained. “They’d say ‘Oh, you’re just trying to save money,’” when staff members diluted juice or switched to 2 percent milk, says Adam Becker from the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children.

But the new standards worked—the obesity rate for kids entering the Chicago Public Schools dropped from 24 percent in 2003 to 20 percent in 2011. The results began turning heads and the Illinois DCFS is now attempting to recreate them statewide.

Despite his lifelong career as an educator, Zientarski says, “schools can’t be the answers to all our problems. We have to spend time educating the next generation to be better parents.”

The new early-childhood daycare guidelines will be open to public comments and discussion this June and July. If they are approved it will be about a year before they can be implemented statewide according to Brad Mansfield, a policy writer for DCFS.