Thunder Bay·Audio

From fat to fit: Thunder Bay health unit aims to get kids healthier

As Thunder Bay's collective waistline continues to grow, the city's unit is about to launch a new strategy on raising healthy kids.

Thunder Bay logs higher obesity rates than the rest of the country, Stats Can reports

The Thunder Bay and District Health Unit is putting the finishing touches on a new strategy to promote healthy lifestyles so kids grow into healthy adults. (CBC)

As Thunder Bay's collective waistline continues to grow, the city's health unit is about to launch a new strategy on raising healthy kids.

More than 30 per cent of Thunder Bay residents are obese, according to recent Statistics Canada data — well above the national average of 24 per cent.

Health unit nutritionist Victoria Holla said people in northwestern Ontario face unique challenges when it comes to making healthy food choices and keeping fit.

Food is more expensive, and some people have no way to get to grocery stores to buy healthy food, so they choose what's close at hand, she said.

Victoria Holla of the Thunder Bay and District Health Unit says people here face unique challenges when it comes to keeping fit. (Supplied)
What is close at hand often comes from convenience stores — foods that can be higher in sodium, sugar and fat.

"Foods that are high in sugar, sodium and fat are more easily accessible to a lot of people in their neighbourhoods,” Holla said.

3-year strategy

Holla noted the health unit is putting the finishing touches on a new strategy to promote healthy lifestyles to help children grow into healthy adults.

The three-year project includes offering financial support to projects like Open Streets, and lobbying for a ban on marketing unhealthy snacks to children.

It also incorporates campaigns already underway.

“Our areas of action include helping adults of reproductive age be healthier,” Holla said.

“So we have [the] What's Your Plan? campaign that encourages individuals of reproductive age to make positive lifestyle changes."

The Health Unit also plans a special children's health forum for Nov. 6, she added.

Survey identifies problem areas

Recently, the unit surveyed local parents to find out what kind of challenges they face in staying healthy, and raising healthy kids. 

The themes that emerged were around body image, health in schools, and the affordability of food and transportation. 

While some issues are common to municipalities across the country, the price of food is an especially big problem in Thunder Bay. 

"We found that many families' and individuals' incomes aren't sufficient to cover the basics, including food, which is a flexible expense,” Holla said.

“And regarding food access, we know that individuals and families have challenges obtaining fresh healthy foods in their neighbourhoods."

Access to affordable transportation was also a concern.

"Transportation helps facilitate movement for families to get to grocery stores or to get to sports and recreation programming,” Holla said.

“So if you are unable to afford transportation it presents a barrier to access grocery stores and health food and access sports and recreation programs."

The strategy in brief:

The health unit's draft strategy is called Working Together For Healthy Kids. It has five components:

  • Focusing on pre-conception health initiatives: for example, the already-active "What's your plan?" on-line and poster campaign, which encourages adults of reproductive age to make healthy choices.  
  • Encouraging and supporting schools to promote children's health. The health unit has a dietitian who does presentations at schools. 
  • Improving and enhancing the food environment. For example, advocacy work will be done to ban marketing to kids so they are exposed to fewer messages promoting unhealthy food
  • Enhancing community environments to promote active living, such as providing financial support to Open Streets. 
  • Raising awareness, building skills, and increasing confidence among children and parents to make positive changes that encourage healthy growth and development. This includes offering parenting programs and food skills training.

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