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Can a Neighborhood Make Kids Fat?

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Does a child's zip code determine his or her chances of becoming obese? A new study suggests that the answer is yes.

Published April 10 in a special issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, "Obesogenic Neighborhood Environments, Child and Parent Obesity: The Neighborhood Impact on Kids Study," led by Brian Saelens, PhD, of Seattle Children's Research Institute, looked at the availability of healthy food choices, walkability and proximity to parks with equipment where kids can be active. Children living in neighborhoods with all of these were 59% more likely to be a healthy weight.

We have long understood that a child's zip code has a huge impact on their educational and employment opportunities, but this and other studies have made it clear that where a child lives can play a big role in determining his or her health. Saelens and his team of researchers used geographic information systems (GIS) data to get a clearer picture of what causes childhood obesity. His is one of six studies to use GIS data to analyze the problem. Scientific American looks closely at these studies and the power of GIS data to map trends in childhood obesity, a sentiment echoed recently in Atlantic Cities.

The information can be used to reverse this alarming trend. Currently, no comprehensive map of playgrounds exists in the United States. No one can say for sure how many there are, or what condition the majority of our playgrounds are in.

At KaBOOM! we are crowd-sourcing a nationwide Map of Play that uses GIS data and user rankings to identify where the engaging playgrounds are located, but more importantly, where they are not. This will ultimately produce a Play Desert map, allowing us to work with state and local governments, policy makers and other community leaders to target those areas with the resources -- including joint use agreements -- needed to close the gap between kids who have a great place to play and those who do not.

According to the Trust for Public Land, U.S. Cities have on average just 8.1 acres of dedicated park space. And in 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found only one in five children live within walking distance of a park or playground. That means almost 15 million kids do not, and this study shows they are the ones who need it most.

We know when children have a place to play they live healthier, happier lives. That's why it is our vision that every child in America will have a great place to play, and why we are so committed to mapping the state of play. Saelens report should act as a wake-up call to everyone who cares about the health and well-being of our children. Zip codes should not determine a child's destiny, for richer or poorer, or for sickness or health.