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Widespread Drop in Obesity Seen Among Low-Income Pre-Schoolers

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a small but significant decline in childhood obesity in 19 states and territories among low-income pre-school students. Many hailed the news as a promising sign that childhood obesity has reached its peak and may now begin to decline nationwide. It may also be a promising sign that some programs aimed at reducing childhood obesity and increasing access to healthy food and physical activity might be working.
 
It is especially good news that the decline was seen among lower-income children, often the group most likely to face the dual problem of food insecurity and obesity. Increasing access to healthier food in schools, more fresh fruits and vegetables in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), and better education about health, obesity, and nutrition all seem to be having an impact. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has numerous programs aimed at improving health and food quality for school children and lower-income families, such as the Farm to School grant program and the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Some also partially attribute the declining obesity rate to an increase in breastfeeding.
 
Although the overall decline in childhood obesity is small, it is widespread; and there are parallels in how every community can begin to improve children’s health locally—by making small changes and taking it step-by-step. All communities need access to healthy food options and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as opportunities to walk or bike to school and work, and education about food choices, physical activity, and health. Someone’s income or neighborhood should not determine their access to healthy food, quality medical care, or a healthy lifestyle. This exciting news from the CDC suggests that we may be beginning to move in the right direction.
 
UNCA member organization the Neighborhood House Association (NHA) in San Diego has won national recognition by Let’s Move! Child Care, and First Lady Michelle Obama for their Healthy, Fit, and Happy Head Start nutrition program. The nutrition program provides daily meals to over 2,000 low-income children in the Head Start program and eliminates processed and pre-packaged foods through the inclusion of local, fresh, natural, and organic foods. NHA has also developed a Farm to Preschool partnership, and has created a city-wide Let’s Move Head Start Olympics. The State of California has also recognized NHA  through the Healthy, Fit and Happy in the New Year program. Damon Carson, NHA Vice President of Children Youth and Family Services, welcomed the CDC findings:
 
“Neighborhood House Association (NHA) celebrates the results of the recently released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report demonstrating a national reduction of childhood obesity rates among low income families.
 
As operators of a large Head Start program, we are proud of building a wellness program that is helping underserved communities improve their quality of life.
 
NHA looks forward to continue making a difference in reducing childhood obesity and supporting children and families in creating a healthier future.”

August Recess is the Perfect Time to Impact Policy

Congress is out of session until September 9, but that doesn’t mean the work stops! While Senators and Congressmen and women are back stumping in their home districts is the perfect time to have an impact. The joint Public Policy Office of UNCA and the Alliance for Children & Families has created an August Recess Toolkit with tips and advice on contacting your Congressional representatives, organizing a site visit, and communicating the issues most important to you and your organization.
 
We urge non-profit professionals, UNCA and Alliance members, and community volunteers to contact their representatives and share their stories during the August recess. It’s a great opportunity to share your policy concerns, your community’s needs, and educate lawmakers about the serious issues facing their districts. It’s also a great chance to raise the profile of your organization. Inviting your Congressional representatives to tour your agency can create press opportunities and otherwise increase community awareness about all the great work that you do.
 
The August Recess Toolkit contains information on how to contact your members and arrange a site visit, drafting leave-behind materials to educate your lawmakers, and sample questions to ask while speaking with your representative or a member of his or her staff. It is very important that your representatives are aware of the work you are doing, so please take full advantage of their time in their districts this month!

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More Details Emerge About President’s Proposed “Promise Zones”

In April, the White House released its FY2014 budget proposal which included a new neighborhood revitalization program dubbed Promise Zones. Few details emerged until recently, when HUD’s Office of Community Planning & Development posted more information, along with some helpful FAQs, online.
 
The interagency, place-based Promise Zones program is inspired by the existing Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. Communities suffering from intransigent, high poverty may propose projects and must “identify a set of outcomes they will pursue to revitalize their communities, develop a strategy supporting those outcomes, and realign resources accordingly.” Promise Zone projects must be individualized and responsive to local community needs. The role of the federal government will be to “partner with and invest in communities to create jobs, leverage private investment, increase economic activity, expand educational opportunities, and improve public safety.”
 
Up to 20 communities will be selected for Promise Zone assistance over the next four years, including up to five communities this year. Promise Zone designees will also receive competitive preference in existing NRI grant programs, such as Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods, and Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation. For 2013, designees will be chosen to apply from a list of 75 existing grantees of NRI and similar programs. Based on the pilot application process, draft qualifying and competitive criteria for future Promise Zones competitions will be released for public comment later this year. For more information, email promisezone@hud.gov.

Early Childhood Education Builds Stronger Communities

The following post was written by Monica Bandy, summer intern for the Alliance for Children and Families and United Neighborhood Centers of America's Public Policy Office. She is a graduate student and a former Head Start teacher, who has been closely monitoring proposed early childhood education reform this summer.
 
Nearly 90 percent of brain growth takes place in a child’s first 2,000 days - long before they first step foot into Kindergarten. Healthy brain development requires developmentally appropriate, positive, and intentional interaction. When children have access to stimulating learning environments and responsive relationships with their parents and caregivers, their brains develop the connections necessary for success. When families have access to early childhood resources that help them build on the strengths of their community, our neighborhoods grow stronger. Watch a video on the importance of early childhood brain development from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.
 
When a child is exposed to an environment that includes toxic stresses, such as: extreme poverty, chronic neglect, abuse, or exposure to violence, the child’s brain circuitry is fundamentally altered. This difference in brain development can place children exposed to toxic stress far behind their more advantaged peers, making it more difficult for them to keep up in, and ultimately graduate from, school. The achievement gap appears long before children enter Kindergarten, and this gap becomes much harder to close after age five.
 
Investments in early childhood education are proven to have a high rate of return by preventing these disparities before they start. In 2012 Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke estimated the return on investment for early childhood programs to be 10% or higher. Intervening early also reduces costs to society in the long run, by decreasing future enrollment in federal assistance programs and law enforcement activities. We can prevent the achievement gap, save money, and create better health and economic outcomes for our communities with early childhood education.
 
Quality early childhood education engages the community and develops the next generation of human capital. UNCA member agency Chicago Commons is an example of some of the fantastic work happening in the early childhood realm. Chicago Commons offers comprehensive services to families including: full day preschool, after school care, parent forums, adult education programs, and neighborhood support programs.  By partnering with families Chicago Commons prepared 1,082 preschoolers for Kindergarten in FY2011. Our communities can best realize their full potential when they can build on a strong foundation from early education.
 
Right now, there is a rare window of opportunity to increase federal support of early learning by building on what is already happening in several states. Twenty seven governors referenced the importance of early childhood education in their state of the state addresses, while President Obama proposed increased federal investments in early childhood education in his State of the Union address.
 
Show your support for early childhood education by signing the Grow America Stronger petition and/or sharing your story about your positive personal experience with early learning.
 
Now is the time to raise our voices in support of early childhood education. Quality early learning opportunities make every child, every family, and every community stronger.

Community Development, Entrepreneurship, and the Freelance Economy

Community development and economic development are often two sides of the same coin. Commercial and business development rarely flow into distressed communities. Likewise, communities can rarely overcome such intractable problems without an injection of economic resources. Attracting new business and creating jobs is often the first goal of any neighborhood revitalization plan. Encouraging big-name brands and corporations to move to your community may create jobs and improve the economy, but many profits are redirected to an HQ many miles away rather than being reinvested in the local community.
 
A new movement might be changing that, though, encouraging peer-to-peer economic exchange and a do-it-yourself mentality. A recent article from the Freelancers’ Union (an organization that promotes “new mutualism,” a “movement that relies on sustainable, community-driven solutions to solve seemingly intractable problems”) describes several municipalities that have specifically sought to cultivate independent businesses and entrepreneurship. Each successful city promoted small business ownership, sustainability, and buy-local initiatives. Each community also embraced its own uniqueness and leveraged individual strengths, rather than seeking to apply a template from another community. UNCA member agency The John H. Boner Community Center is doing just this type of resident centered engagement with its community development efforts on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis.
 
A similar article that appeared recently in The Atlantic describes Portland, Oregon’s,   individualized, entrepreneurial strategy. Of course, “be like Portland” is not an effective economic development strategy. The article states that many economically successful communities “seem to be rediscovering what makes them special, the distinctiveness of what they make or provide and sell to the world, rather than what makes them the same.”
 
The DIY mentality is taking root in the form of municipal policy in communities large and small across the country. One example is UNCA member Bridge Rockford Alliance in Rockford, Illinois, which has invested in “the Etsy economy” (so-called because of the peer-to-peer marketplace Etsy.com). At its heart, the initiative encourages residents to learn to make things, and to understand the basics of managing a business. It also encourages locals to buy local, engaging in economic interaction directly with the manufacturer rather than distant corporations and layers of middlemen, thus reinvesting the money directly in the community.
 
The federal government has long promoted the ideal of “Main Street” as both the economic and cultural heart of communities. Marking another step forward, Karen G. Mills, Administrator of the Small Business Administration, announced at the 2013 Neighborhood Revitalization Conference that the SBA will waive fees on loans under $150,000. Ideally, policies such as these will encourage economic growth that leverages the unique skills of communities and reinvests the money locally. With these kinds of resources, neighborhoods can helm their own revitalization, bringing services, jobs, goods, and sustainable development to the local level.

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by Dr. Radut