Encouraging Oak Park children to eat healthier and get more physical exercise is the focus of a new campaign spearheaded by the West Cook YMCA.

The West Cook Y, 255 S. Marion, applied for a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant last year to address the problem of childhood obesity. The grant is part of the “Pioneering Healthy Communities” (PHC) initiative the foundation launched in 2004. The national YMCA organization was selected to partner in the effort, with its local chapters implementing programs in their communities.

Eight communities in Illinois, including Oak Park, were chosen as a “PHC.”

Jan Pate, president and CEO of the West Cook Y, explained that the local effort here will be community wide. Among the groups who have signed on are the Village of Oak Park, both area hospitals, Oak Park Community Foundation and school districts 200 and 97.

The West Cook Y received a total of $52,000 from the Johnson Foundation, the majority of that money to be used to implement whatever programs and strategies the community comes up with. Pate said officials from the various stakeholder groups have been meeting regularly since receiving the grant.

Elizabeth Lippitt, director of Oak Park’s Children’s Clinic and a lead organizer for the Oak Park effort, said they’re currently developing a strategic plan on how to tackle childhood obesity in Oak Park, among other strategies.

Lippitt and Pate recently met with the D97 school board. Officials at that July 13 meeting included Village President David Pope and Steven Isoye, superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School. Lippitt, though, said the Oak Park effort will also address obesity in adolescents and adults. Per the foundation’s guidelines, the campaign includes developing community policies to encourage increased physical activity and healthier eating habits.

“We want young people to eat less and move more,” Pate said.

Lippitt added that her clinic has seen its share of overweight and child obesity cases. Illinois, she noted, has among the highest childhood obesity rates in the nation, according to statistics she quoted from the Cook County Department of Public Health. Approximately 20.7 percent of the state’s children are considered obese, Lippitt noted, and in Cook County alone, 63 percent of adults and 40 percent of kids are considered overweight or obese.

“It’s not a stat we’re proud of,” Lippitt said, adding that the awareness campaign will include promoting the link between physical fitness and academics.

“There’s a strong connection between academic achievement and physical fitness,” she said. “When my children were at OPRF it was always very interesting to me when I went to the sports nights there how many of the athletes were scholar athletes — a huge percentage.”

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