City Hall

At City Hall, Dr. Kenneth Cooper Declares the Health of Dallas Children a "Disaster"

For a good hour or so this morning, there was a parade of people to the briefing-room podium at Dallas City Hall to discuss the Mayor's Youth Fitness Initiative, funded with $1 million worth of seed money from Oncor. Among those on hand: Mike Rawlings, Park Board president and would-be mayoral candidate; Paul Dyer, head of Parks and Rec; Oncor veep Debbie Dennis, last seen at City Hall explaining why communications during last February's winter storm were so godawful; and Dr. Kenneth Cooper, namesake of the Aerobics Center and Institute.

You can read the briefing, but long story short: Dallas schoolchildren are overweight, out of shape and at risk for diabetes. And it's getting worse every year: As Cooper noted, two years ago just one in five Dallas third-graders passed the state-mandated FitnessGram assessment, and that number drops with each passing year.

"The results have been a disaster," he told the council, insisting that Dallas has "the seventh-fattest children in the U.S." And, again, he said: "It's a disaster, and it'll be worse in the future with diabetes, hypertension, etc."

He spoke at length about the "perfect correlation between levels of fitness and the grades kid make in school," about the "clear relationship between absenteeism and dropout rates as relates to fitness," and about how it all ties back to "drug and gang violence." Said Cooper, it has nothing to do with economics either: In Highland Park ISD, he said, "only 33 percent of their third-graders could pass the test."

At present, there's no clear funding for the program save for Oncor's seed money; a full budget is expected to be presented to council in the spring. This morning's speakers said they want to see it take hold, initially, in 14 of the city's rec centers. One of the models: the Juanita J. Craft Recreation Center, home of Baylor's new Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute.

But, cautioned Dennis, "this initiative seeks to make a difference -- not overnight, not through a single program." There are still myriad questions to answer -- like, how do you get kids to rec centers they don't use, and how will the program be funded asides from funds promised by such partners as the Dallas Mavericks, the Texas Rangers, FC Dallas and the Cowboys.

Council members were asked to submit their suggestions for rec centers at which to roll out the program; Rawlins suggested a competition amongst the 14 members. "Let's see who can get the most kids signed up," he said. "I believe in competition -- rack 'em, stack 'em."

But, first, Tennell Atkins wants City Manager Mary Suhm to explain how this will impact the Parks and Rec budget (the mayor and others repeatedly said the city will not contribute a single cent to the MyFi program). Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway insisted any fruit bought to dole out at rec centers -- a key component of the program -- come from the downtown Dallas Farmers Market.

"We must take care of those who are part of our system," he said. "Keep the money and economic growth growing within our own communities."

Steve Salazar cautioned against getting too big too fast. "Money doesn't solve everything," he said. Pauline Medrano suggested bringing in the community gardens and using the existing bike-n-hike trails. And Ron Natinsky wants kids off their damned cell phones during exercise class. Well, sure.