Washington, DC is often thought of as one of the healthiest cities in the US. It ranks 50th out of 51 states for obesity. On paper, DC looks like a beacon of health, but that’s not the whole story.
DC has significant disparities when it comes to health. When we add overweight to obesity, we find that 56% of all adults living in DC are overweight or obese. These rates increase to more than 72% in the District’s neighborhoods east of the river (Wards 7 and 8). Racial disparities with regards to obesity in the District are extreme, for example, less than one in every 10 white District residents are obese, whereas one in every three African Americans in the District are obese.
Childhood obesity is a growing focus for many health professionals because overweight and obese children often grow up to be overweight and obese adults, therefore they will have to deal with all of the associated diseases including hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol. D.C. has the ninth highest childhood obesity rate in the United States, according to Child Health Data.
Shared Use and OST in the District
Physical activity is one of the most important factors in preventing obesity but many children and residents struggle with access to safe, clean spaces to be physically active. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association, through a project called Voices for Healthy Kids, have identified school facilities as opportune sites for physical activity within communities. DC-based non-profit Advocates for Better Children’s Diets (ABCD) is working with Voices to bring equitable access throughout DC.
Shared use – also known as facility use, community use, or joint use – agreements allow community groups, non-profit organizations, and local government agencies to make use of public school facilities and grounds after the school day, on weekends, and over the summer and other breaks. As community members seek safe, clean, and convenient places to be physically active, they should be able to readily use the gymnasiums, sports fields, courts, tracks and other facilities at their local public schools.
Like health, shared use is not evenly distributed throughout the District. Many kids must traverse half a mile or more in high-crime neighborhoods across busy streets to find safe places to play. Increasing access to school recreational facilities and programs would allow kids to be more physically active, which in turn promotes scholastic performance, healthy weight, and self-esteem. We created maps of DC's wards to show the current disparities and opportunities that shared use could bring to the communities, and highlighted vast areas of inaccessibility dubbed “physical activity deserts.”
We spoke with community groups throughout the District that have utilized schools through shared use agreements. The groups identified the following (in open response) as the major barriers to utilizing school spaces for recreation:
- Navigating the complex agreement system, which not schools currently utilize,
- Limited availability/accessibility of space, and
- High fees for security and custodial costs.
Now that you know about this opportunity to help families in the District be healthier, please take action. Here are three ways you can get involved:
- Contact your council member expressing your interest in the issue.
- Talk to your public school principal to see if they participate in shared or facility use.
- Share your stories and solutions with ABCD by contacting Stephanie Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shared use is a great opportunity for communities to utilize public facilities to get physically active and stay healthy, and to bring equitable opportunities to play and grow to all of DC’s kids.