In Chicago’s black and Hispanic neighborhoods, parents, schools and community leaders are making small changes that could add up to a big improvement in children’s health.

Federally- and state-mandated healthier lunches, schoolyard vegetable gardens, and cooking and aerobics lessons are on Chicago’s track to trim childhood obesity.

“The Latino and African-American communities across the nation are in a state of epidemic,” said Guillermo Gomez, father of a Chicago public school student and the Chicago director for the Healthy Schools Campaign, a children’s health advocacy group.

“You can’t put it any other way. There’s an epidemic in these communities in the area of obesity and health disparity. Once parents understand that, there’s no other way but to come out and help and to try to make a difference,” Gomez said.

Overweight children have a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, among other health complications, studies show.

But two out of every three children in Chicago’s minority neighborhoods are overweight or obese, a number that far surpasses already disturbing national averages, according to a 2004 study by the Sinai Urban Health Institute.

The study found that more than 50 percent of children who live in the predominantly black neighborhoods of North Lawndale and Roseland are obese. Close to 50 percent of children are obese in Humboldt Park just north of Austin, and West Town, two neighborhoods with large Hispanic populations.

These startling statistics appear at a time when many public schools in these neighborhoods and throughout Chicago have eliminated recess. Physical education has also been eliminated from the school day because of budget shortages or a push to focus more time on improving test scores, experts say.

“Having recess or physical education is at the discretion of each school’s principal,” said Denise Murphy-Stroud, the physical education curriculum manager for CPS.

Stroud is developing programs that train teachers to incorporate physical activity into regular classrooms.

The Chicago Board of Education adopted a Local School Wellness Policy in August 2006. The policy is designed to encourage schools to promote nutrition and physical activity, though it leaves the specifics up to each school.

Groups such as the Healthy Schools Campaign and the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children are partnering with community-based organizations to develop specialized in-school and out-of-school physical education and nutrition programs.

The groups hired networkers – people who live and work in the communities – to help shape the programs.

“What we’ve seen is that it gives us access and information because Chicago is such a community of neighborhoods,” said Liz Wuerfell, a project coordinator for the consortium. “Resources in one neighborhood will be incredibly different than resources in another.”

Wuerffel oversees ‘Transportation that is Active and Safe for Kids’ (TASK), a group within the consortium that promotes safe walking and biking in Uptown, Edgewater, West Town, East Humboldt Park, West Garfield Park and Ashburn.

“We focused really on the trip to and from school because that’s a tangible daily activity that will increase [the kids’] ability to have more activity,” she said.

After surveying the communities, Wuerffel found that most parents agreed that traffic and gang violence were the two major problems preventing children from walking to school.

Each of the communities suggested forming a ‘walking school bus’, where a parent volunteers to pick kids up at home or at designated locations along a walking route to school.

“It not only encourages kids to walk; it gives them a safe route to do that,” Wuerffel explained.

While a version of a walking school bus in Logan Square has met with success, responses have varied in other neighborhoods TASK has targeted.

Schools also require parents who lead walking school buses to submit to fingerprinting and background checks, which Wuerffel believes may discourage undocumented immigrants from participating.

Gomez, who works primarily with Hispanic neighborhoods, said strategies to tackle childhood obesity are gathering steam.

“Progress in this area is going to be slow, but principals and parents are very interested in making a change.”

Recently, 80 people attended a breakfast that Gomez helped organize to allow parents and administrators to meet with principals from Chicago schools that have enacted successful health programs.

“Some schools have implemented salad bars; some have reinstated recess,” said Gomez, who explained that the breakfast was intended to establish a dialogue between parents and principals.

Seven hundred people attended a Healthy Schools Campaign rally for school wellness last spring, and 300 parents presented signed postcards to the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education calling for a wellness policy that was eventually adopted in August.

But convincing the Hispanic community that childhood obesity is a serious concern was challenging at first, according to organizers from the Healthy Schools Campaign.

“What we found is, to some extent, parents were hearing from the dominant culture that their kids were fat and needed to lose weight,” said Rochelle Davis, executive director for Healthy Schools Campaign. “They thought that this was just other way the dominant culture was telling them what was pretty and what wasn’t. We tried to turn it around and make it about disparity and health.”

The strategy seems to have worked. Most of the campaign’s program ideas now come from within the communities.

“We have a very, very strong coordinating community of parents who plan these events,” Davis said.

In the predominantly Hispanic Little Village community on the West Side, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization worked with an area elementary school on child obesity. The school became the first school in Illinois to measure children for obesity.

The organization, with a membership of mostly community parents, has taken an active role in promoting healthy activities for community youth, activists note.

Jovita Flores is a leader in the organization. Flores took nutrition classes in college and has three children in public schools. She teaches cooking classes to parents who want to learn how to make healthier versions of their favorite recipes.

She usually sees a turnout of 8-12 parents in each of her classes, which she holds three times a week.

“Parents bring ideas and recipes and they share,” said Flores, who is in the process of assembling a cook book with the recipes they’ve compiled so far.

Flores has also organized community walks and events that bring parents and children to grocery stores to learn how to interpret the nutritional information on food labels.

An aerobics class for parents and kids held at a local school, which initially drew about five parents, is growing little by little, Flores said.

“Now almost all of the schools in the neighborhood have aerobics classes, with 20-40 parents participating,” she said.