Largo is one of just three cities nationwide picked to participate in a pilot program aimed at fighting childhood obesity.
As part of the program, the Pinellas County Health Department received a $300,000 grant that will be used to help Largo's first- through third-graders battle obesity and become more aware of the value of healthy living.
Under the new initiative:
• Largo schools will provide healthier lunches and after-school snacks.
•Teachers and parents will receive information about the importance of healthy eating.
•More physical activity will be encouraged.
"It's only been in the last couple years that the public has held obesity as a chronic disease as asthma," said Peter Gallagher, a human services program specialist for Pinellas County Health Department and the writer of the grant. "The problem is so big and this is another attempt to try and address it."
The two-year grant is funded by Children in Balance, an initiative of the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston that researches nutrition and physical activity for children. The mission is to reduce and prevent childhood obesity.
Largo is one of three cities selected to replicate a three-year study conducted in Somerville, Mass. From 2002 to 2005, "Shape Up Somerville: Eat and Play Hard" changed the lunch diet of first- through third- graders by adding more fruit and serving low-fat milk.
The education effort led to several businesses in Somerville being designated "Shape Up" friendly because they served smaller portions and used low-fat milk. Sidewalks were repainted in the town of 78,000 to make them more noticeable and walker friendly.
According to information released by Tufts University, the children in Somerville gained less weight during the study period than children in two other control group communities.
Nearly 40 percent of children are either overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, according to Children in Balance. A disproportionate number are racial and ethnic minorities.
Children In Balance was looking for cities with similar demographics as Somerville. Largo fit the mold with 10 elementary schools and a population of nearly 75,000. Largo's program will be dubbed "Shape Up Largo."
During the 2005-2006 school year, 28.8 percent of Largo first- and third-graders were either overweight or at risk to be overweight, according to Pinellas County's grant application. One year later, the percentage rose to 32 percent. Second-graders were not measured.
"Nationally, 16 percent of children in that age range are obese or have the potential. And for us to be able to address that in Largo is important," said Chip Potts, athletic program manager for Largo Recreation Parks and Art.
"It's one of those issues where it's not an immediate emergency situation, like my child just broke his leg," Potts said. "It sneaks up on you. You still go get fries. Your child is not getting enough physical activity and parents are calling the weight baby fat."
Officials are hammering out how the program will work locally. But some decisions have been made.
For example, there will be signs posted throughout the Largo schools stressing the importance of choosing the correct types of foods.
Linda Gray Miller, the food services director for the Pinellas County School District, said it already has made many positive nutrition changes to the lunch menu countywide. But in support of the grant, it will include a la carte offerings with a labeled rating system and monthly nutrition education at the 10 Largo elementary schools.
Food service managers from participating schools will attend one professional development day of Children in Balance training each year.
The grant program will run until spring 2010 and students will be monitored to see if they lose or maintain their weight.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or email@example.com