Like policymakers across the country, officials in Kingston have found that tackling childhood obesity requires a big toolbox that includes both education and investment in safe routes for walking and biking. To this end, the city’s “A Healthy Kingston for Kids” initiative, funded by a $360,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), identifies development of a complete streets policy and law as a key goal. The city officials and community organizations running the initiative will have to coordinate with a diversity of partners, embark on a grassrootseducation and advocacy program, and eventually build the community’s overall capacity for active living.
Kingston’s historic neighborhoods are well-suited for walking and cycling. The city proper is only 3 miles across, and is relatively compact, but its core is bisected by Broadway, a four-lane road, and many of its streets lack sidewalks or bike lanes. Though Kingston’s proximity to the Hudson River made it a key shipping hub before railroads transformed the region, the city now has a depressed urban core. 19.6% of its residents (compared to 14% state-wide) and 26.5% of its kids are living below the poverty level. The well-known link between poverty and obesity is fully evident in Kingston—according to the Ulster County Health Department, about 44% of the children are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, compared to 33% of children across the country.
In January, Kingston and 40 other communities across the United States were awarded multi-year grants to find community-based solutions to childhood obesity. The grants targeted communities with high obesity levels exacerbated by other factors such as poverty, unemployment, crime, insufficient infrastructure, and poor food options. In New York State, Buffalo, Rochester, and Kingston were awarded grants.
The first step will be a thorough assessment of existing policy and identification of one pilot project, such as revitalizing Broadway, to kick-start the program. A separate committee, “Safe Routes to Schools and Parks,” is mapping the walkability of routes within a 2-mile radius of the schools and parks in the city, and two additional committees are addressing access to healthy foods.
Turning around the situation in Kingston will require a lot of work and the effort there mirrors the efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama to get kids moving again. What cities like Kingston are finding is that they will need to work on both on streets and on hearts and minds. Around the four o’clock school-bus hour, in neighborhoods close to Kingston, one can often see parents sitting in their idling cars at the end of long driveways. The child gets out of the bus and into the car, and the parent backs the car up the driveway, delivering the child home.