One of the areas hardest hit by the obesity epidemic is inner-city, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, many of which have obesity rates, and obesity associated health problems, that far exceed those in other communities. A key challenge facing these inner-city communities is that one of the answers to this health crisis — increased physical activity — is often difficult to implement on a broad scale due to a lack of available infrastructure designed for recreational activities.
Recognizing this challenge, health advocates in Arizona saw an opportunity to unlock a hidden recreational gem in the middle of many of these communities — public schools and their playgrounds, gymnasiums and practice fields. Similar to many schools throughout America, Arizona schools shuttered these recreational opportunities on nights, weekends and during the summer due to concerns over liability.
“Within nearly every town or city, a school tends to be the center of the community. It is a safe place for kids to play, and if there are places for children to play, they tend to be more physically active,” says Nicole Olmstead, government relations director for the American Heart Association in Arizona.
In 2012, the health advocates began working in the State Legislature to create the tools to protect schools that want to share their recreation facilities with community members. They added language into the statute that would essentially make school ground a public park when school was not in session.
The change was well received, but many school officials felt it did not go far enough to protect them from potential lawsuits. So the health groups returned to the Legislature in 2014 and were successful in securing passage of legislation that would provide greater liability protections for schools. And while the original legislation applied only to the grounds of a school, the new measure extends liability protection to inside use, such as gymnasiums.
Recognizing that shared use is only one piece in the effort to untangle the obesity puzzle, Arizona health advocates are now working on efforts to complement their success including Safe Routes to School, improved school nutrition and increased opportunities for in-school physical activity.