Since 1980, the rate of childhood obesity in Harlem has quadrupled.

Monique Roy, chairwoman of the Lewiston School Committee, and Joe Philippon, a community resource officer with the Lewiston Police Department, chat during a recent visit to the Armory, where the Harlem Children’s Zone runs many athletic programs. Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

While this is part of a national trend, Nadirah Chestnut, director of the Healthy Harlem program run by the Harlem Children’s Zone, the growing waistlines of Harlem’s youngsters are a cause for concern.

“Over the long term, it is something that could undermine our efforts” to pull people out of poverty, she said.

Since its inception in 2012, the Healthy Harlem initiative has quickly grown to address “one of our biggest programs,” Chestnut said.

It attempts to encourage “happy, healthy, thinking” kids who know how to talk about health and benefit from “a culture of health and wellness,” Chestnut said.

Chestnut said students get 45 minutes of nutrition education weekly and at least an hour of daily activity.


The daily activity takes place in schools and after-school centers, but it also occurs in the Armory building, which has fitness classes, sports leagues and more.

Chris Calderon, the program’s assistant director at the Armory, said its programs try “to keep up with trends” so it can offer students activities they want to pursue, from tennis to track.

Erica Terrell, director of the nonprofit’s Lenox Avenue preschool, said it has an emphasis on health.

Terrell said her school has a cheer that says “Drink water! Drink water! Drink water!” They also follow the Healthy Harlem efforts to get everybody eating more wisely, she said, adding that she ate her first arugula and mashed cauliflower through the program at her school.

Children with serious weight problems get more attention. Those in the top 1 percent in obesity get medical care, she said, because extra weight can lead to increased risk of diabetes, hypertension and more.

It is a real problem in Harlem, Chestnut said, because a quarter of the population has not had any activity in the past month, surveys show, and 15% have not had a fruit or vegetable in the past day.


Immigrants face a big hurdle, too, she said, with research showing their weights tend to spike after moving to the United States.

Chestnut said there is a lot of research showing that children who eat healthier will process information better and improve their academic performance. Physical activity also helps, she said, and leads to both better behavior and better attendance.

“We promote healthy habits with a belief we can promote healthy choices,” she said.

Lena Washington, who runs an after-school program for high school students, said it will not do any good to educate youngsters and push them through to college if they do not develop healthy habits that will put them in good stead for the long haul.

“If you’re not dead, you can work,” Washington said.

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