On weekends from April to October, West Chicago residents are likely to spot Mayor Ruben Pineda and a small entourage walking around the city wearing T-shirts saying "Team Pineda." Anyone is welcome to join and, as the mayor's Team Pineda Facebook page invites, "Lose a Layer With the Mayor."
West Chicago resident Melissa Birch said she's been exercising more since joining Team Pineda when it started in April 2013.
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"The planned walks definitely have increased the physical activity for me," she said, "We just walk, talk and enjoy looking at the community."
If Pineda has his way, a lot more West Chicago residents will be physically active around town and eating healthier too in years to come. Shocked by statistics showing high rates of obesity in the city, Pineda has spearheaded the Healthy West Chicago initiative, a coalition of organizations working together to make West Chicago a healthier place to live and work.
Pineda said he started talking to different organizations about the health and fitness of West Chicago residents after he was appointed mayor following the death of former Mayor Mike Kwasman in April 2012. Kwasman suffered a massive heart attack when having lunch with friends in a pizza parlor and Pineda was one of those who performed CPR.
The statistics showing the size of the obesity problem in the city stunned him, Pineda said. A study done by FORWARD DuPage showed that among a sampling of students in West Chicago Elementary District 33 in 2012-13, 46 percent were overweight or obese, compared to 29.6 percent countywide. (The District 33 rate came down to 42 percent in the 2013-14 school year).
"It was jaw-dropping," Pineda said.
The first Hispanic mayor in a community that is 51 percent Hispanic, Pineda said that many of the staples of the Hispanic diet such as rice, beans and potatoes don't lend themselves to the best nutrition. But he also found plenty of support for working to make West Chicago healthier.
Partners in health
Fighting Obesity Reaching Healthy Weight Among Residents of DuPage, better known as FORWARD DuPage, hosted a conference in April 2013 in Naperville where municipal officials learned of Oklahoma City's successful efforts to bring down the municipality's obesity rates.
Founded in 2009, FORWARD DuPage obtained grants to help bring better nutrition to schools and is working with the United Way to spread that wellness awareness to the communities, said Ann Marchetti, consultant/director of FORWARD DuPage.
The organization has applied for another grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to target six communities -- including West Chicago -- where residents have higher body mass index ratios and lower graduation rates than other communities in the area, Marchetti said.
"Health is an economic driver for a community," Marchetti said. "Your ZIP code really determines your quality of life."
Because people fall back on what is convenient, the aim of FORWARD DuPage and Healthy West Chicago is to help provide accessible options for eating better and staying physically active, Marchetti said.
"We have to find ways to help people make the healthy choice the easy choice," she said.
WeGo Together for Kids, a collaboration of more than 40 partners seeking to support West Chicago students and their families in West Chicago Elementary District 33, already was working to increase physical activity and improve nutrition.
The food vendor for District 33 has provided healthier lunch choices in the schools, said Marjory Lewe-Brady, director of partnerships. WeGo also has an annual Wellness Walk.
"Kids who are healthier learn better," Lewe-Brady said. "This (Healthy West Chicago) fits with what we do, so we're happy to be in partnership with the mayor with Healthy West Chicago."
A 10-year strategic plan for Healthy West Chicago is being funded by Cadence Health, with contributions from WeGo Together for Kids and United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. The plan is being developed by Seven Generations Ahead, an Oak Park-based group that works with communities on how to promote sustainability and better health.
Tammy Pressley, director of community, government and public affairs for Cadence Health, said high obesity rates are a concern for health care providers because they result in higher rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
"It is a problem facing all the communities we serve, but it is a particular problem in West Chicago," she said.
Pressley said Cadence Health also got on board with Healthy West Chicago because community leaders there have shown a willingness to tackle tough issues.
"West Chicago is a very collaborative community," Pressley said. "They have a very effective infrastructure of leaders with a history of solving problems."
Input from residents
The strategic plan is being developed with input from a survey of people who live or work in West Chicago to gauge their interest in healthy eating, physical activity and ways to improve.
The survey was handed out during Railroad Days in July and is available on the city's website, westchicago.org. Gary Cuneen, executive director of Seven Generations, said the organization also will hold community forums and meetings starting this fall.
Some forums will be for the general public, while other forums and small meetings will be for institutional stakeholders such the village government, park district and schools. Cuneen said the resulting plan, expected to be presented for approval at the end of January, could include such components as more bike and pedestrian paths and healthier choices in restaurants.
"The two major buckets are increasing healthy eating and increasing physical activity," he said.
Pineda said this is an ideal time for West Chicago to address the issue because it is working on a redevelopment plan for the downtown that includes 14 acres purchased by the city for a municipal campus.
"We have the perfect opportunity right now. We'll be able to design our downtown to make it sustainable for residents," he said.
Gary Major, executive director of the West Chicago Park District, said the park district's plan to soon open a new 70,000-square-foot recreation center also fits well with the purposes of the Healthy West Chicago initiative. Presently, 50 percent of West Chicago residents participate in park district programs. Major said he hopes to see participation go up to 75 percent with the new recreation center.
"I think it is a great initiative and my hope is we can translate it into active results," he said.