Obesity affects 1 out of every 6 kids in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and for the first time in our history, children face a shorter lifespan than their parents.

These facts led a team of scientists from ChildObesity180 at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition, and community partners such as Partners for a Healthier Community, Square One, and Springfield Food Policy Council, to unite and promote a campaign, You’re the Mom. ChildObesity180 seeks to reverse the trend with four evidence-based initiatives, including a Restaurant Initiative.
“We want to empower moms when they eat out,” says Linda Harelick, deputy director of ChildhoodObesity180. “They have an important role in the family and the community. We want them to rethink the choices they are making when they order at a restaurant with their kids. When we order, it is a habit to order the same things. This campaign is about breaking that habit. We want them to make simple but powerful changes.”

You’re The Mom has been rolled out in Springfield with the team from Tufts and a focus group of local moms. You’re the Mom will go national in spring 2017. Harelick says Springfield is an excellent test area because it is low-income, diverse, and close to Boston.

Moms are being asked to make simple swaps to improve meals when kids are eating out, such as having kids eat from the children’s menu. According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Guidelines, children ages 4-8 need 1,200 to 2,000 calories per day, yet the average adult meal at a fast-food restaurant contains more than 800 calories — for a single meal. Some adult meals can go as high as 1,500 calories. Ordering from kids’ menus typically provides fewer calories, more nutritional variety, and stays within the guidelines a 600-calorie-or-less meal for a 4- to 12-year-old child. 

But ordering off the kids’ menu is the just the first step.

“Choose the fruit or vegetable options rather than the fried sides,” Harelick advises. “We have a fun hashtag to help moms remember that: #AppleSliceSaturday.” Other healthy hashtags include #MilkStasheMonday, #TomatoTuesday (add a tomato to your child’s sandwich) and #WaterWendesdays (swap at least one soda or sugary drink for water).

Moms are encouraged to post using the hashtags as way of supporting each other. “Peer support is so important,” Harelick notes. “During the focus groups, one mom got so excited about the picture of the kid in an adult suit as a reminder to order of the kids’ menu, that she took a picture of it and sent it to a friend. That kind of sharing is natural, and we want to give moms tools to share healthy messages.

Springfield mom and pilot program member Natalie Parrish (pictured opposite page) worked to get her 7-year-old son to eat more fruits and vegetables. “We go to the farmer’s market now for our vegetables,” she says. “The fresh fruits and vegetables are fresher and they last longer. They are also a better price. We eat more produce this way.”

She also encourages her son to visit the market with her to pick out fresh vegetables and fruits. “The truth is, he won’t eat what I don’t buy, so I don’t buy snack food like I did,” she adds. “I might buy the multipack of chips, but the bags have smaller amounts so I can have some portion control, too.”

Healthy Hashtags are just one of a handful of social media supports offered to moms. You’re The Mom also has a Facebook page (facebook.com/yourethemommovement) and Twitter feed (@yourethemom). Social media isn’t the only way they are reaching out. 

Recently, two large murals were painted in downtown Springfield featuring some of the moms, including Parrish, and reminders about making simple choices that have big impacts. One of the murals was painted by artist Victor “Marka27” Quinonez (marka27.com), who creates vibrant murals with social commentary.

“I was there when it was being painted and it was, honestly, overwhelming!” Parrish laughed. “It has been really exciting, and I’ve had so many positive responses. It has been really welcoming, too. It brings a personal touch to the campaign, and I want to help get the message out.” (Her mural, opposite page, can found on the side of the Imperial Grocery at 1072 State St.)

Residents can also look for healthy hashtags and You’re The Mom messages on utility boxes and buses.

Moms do have power. In 2011, McDonald’s changed the default menu for its Happy Meal to offer apple slices and milk; parents have to request fries and soda. Wendy’s Kid’s Meal offers a grilled chicken wrap as an option.

“Choosing a grill item is an excellent way to improve the nutrition of a kid’s meal,” Harelick adds.

Research that underlies the Restaurant Initiative found that when a restaurant changed its menu to offer healthy options as the default, kids ordered more healthy options and the restaurant actually made a few cents more per meal. So with more moms asking for healthy choices and it being better for business, the change could be even greater.

“And the spillover we hope to see is that moms begin to make good choices for themselves too,” Harelick said.