CDC report charts local obesity, inactivity rates
Similar observations are being made in minority communities across the Chicago area.

Ana Flores, 33, who moved to the Chicago area about 14 years ago from Cuernavaca, a Mexican city about 50 miles south of Mexico City, said that fresh fruits and vegetables were more readily accessible in her hometown.

Processed junk foods — the cookies, chips and soda popular in the United States — were harder to come by, she said.

"Over (in Mexico), you might not have money to eat red meat, or cookies, or fries, or to drink Coke every day," Flores said. "Here, we have the possibility to eat like that. We just need to teach people how to eat the foods (in moderation)."

Flores and a handful of other Latinas were recruited by Northwest Community Hospital to educate members of the Latino communities in Palatine and Mount Prospect about managing their weight to avoid running the risk of diabetes, a chronic disease prevalent among Hispanics.

In the south suburbs, Moriel McClerklin, executive director of the Crossroads Coalition, a Chicago Heights-based nonprofit group that addresses environmental and health issues, visits local churches to urge parishioners to bring healthier food to church events.

"There are some cultural traditions around food that show up everywhere in the African-American community," McClerklin said. "It shows up on people's dinner tables and it shows up at the church fellowship."

Elsewhere, community health organizers work in partnership with public health officials to make preventative health care such as exercise more accessible.

When Esther Sciammarella, founder of the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition, worked as a special assistant for then-Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Sheila Lyne in the early 1990s, she helped to launch a prescription exercise program.

Doctors at local clinics would prescribe exercise classes to patients, who could then take free classes at Chicago Park District facilities, Sciammarella said. Now, the prescription element is not a requirement for people to participate. Classes are held at seven park district facilities, a community center and two hospitals.

"Some people don't have the resources to go to a health club or pay the fees," Sciammarella said.

Estimates show that 65 percent of 167 Pilsen adults surveyed in 2009 were overweight or obese, according to a study released last year by the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. Those surveyed — mostly women — were caretakers of children. More than half of those children were also considered overweight or obese, the study showed.

More than three-quarters of those in the consortium's study said they had not done any physical activity in a gym in the seven days prior to their interview.

Walking was the most common physical activity among those surveyed, but 67 percent of adults said they would walk more often if they felt safer in their neighborhood.

Back in Maywood, residents such as Loretta Brown, 66, are taking steps to reverse unhealthy body weight.

Three years ago, Brown and other residents helped to launch a farmer's market. Last year, the Maywood Market opened at 615 S. Fifth Ave., becoming the first fully stocked fresh grocery store in the village in more than a decade.

"We're not a hopeless community by any stretch," Brown said. "We have a lot of positive things we're doing but have a long way to go."