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Making Richmond healthy on a dime

on January 14, 2010

As obesity sweeps the nation and a book about health or food seems to come out every other week, a few people in Richmond are doing their best to reverse the weight gain trend and improve the city’s health statistics. Jan Schilling started the Weigh of Life program almost four years ago to try and reach people who might not have a viable option for getting healthy.

“The low-income people don’t have access to the nutrition information and the Y[MCA] and 24 Hour Fitness, so that’s why we’re here,” Schilling said.

A study released last summer asserted that Contra Costa County is losing an estimated $1.3 billion each year to health care costs related to obesity and overweight and lost productivity. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) conducted the study based on data from 2006, and found that Contra Costa’s rate of obese and overweight adults was 62.56 percent, not far from the national average of roughly two thirds of the population.

At 70, Schilling is sharp and energetic, and might be the best advertisement for her program that money can buy. She recruits most new members through tables she sets up at the Richmond Flea Market on Saturdays and the Friday farmers market at the Civic Center. Word of mouth also brings in some new people looking to lose weight and eat better. Right now the program has about 100 members, and has seen 800 people come through in the last four years.

The difference between Schilling’s program and a gym membership is that it combines both exercise and nutrition into one program at the same cost. There are bilingual aerobics and nutrition classes, and one-on-one consulting time with Schilling is also available. Members say the program also fosters camaraderie and becomes a social outlet for them.

“I get to meet new people, hang out with friends,” said Beatriz Esqueda, 35. Esqueda has been a member of the program for two years, and has lost 40 pounds.

Perhaps most importantly, Weigh of Life is cheaper than most gym memberships or weight loss programs – $27 a month. The bottom line is a major factor for many of Schilling’s members, which becomes particularly clear in the nutrition classes when they discuss their shopping habits. She makes an effort to stay mindful of that when giving advice. Each year she completes an audit of grocery stores in the area to compare prices and shares the results with her pupils. Schilling also holds competitions for shedding pounds, inches, or for attending class regularly, in which the winners receive a portion or all of their membership off for the the next month.

While Schilling recognizes that the cost of the program needs to stay low to be accessible to the population it serves, membership fees don’t cover all the expenses of the classes and she has to look for additional funding elsewhere. The biggest grants she has received are from Kaiser, augmented with a couple of other smaller ones from other organizations. She has even kicked in some of her retirement savings to help the program.

Many of the grants Schilling finds are for nutrition programs targeting children, but she believes women are an important part of the equation.

“I feel that these women are the gateway for their families – the food they buy, the shopping decisions they make,” Schilling said.

Among the CCPHA report’s recommendations for mitigating obesity and health related problems is that cities start taking health and fitness into account when devising their general plan. Richmond has done this in an extensive section of the latest version of the city general plan. The draft cites six fast food restaurants or convenience stores for every supermarket in Richmond, implying that for some city residents, more nutritious food is likely to be farther away and more expensive. The plan proposes attempting to improve that ratio by trying to entice new supermarkets to the city, encouraging more stores to provide fresh produce and supporting community agriculture and farmers markets.

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