Children at Charles R. Drew Charter School in the Atlanta community of East Lake are active, upbeat and fit, like millions of other school kids.
But it wasn't always that way. Two decades ago, when Carol Naughton first visited what was then Drew Elementary, she was struck by how different the children appeared compared with kids in other schools.
"The vast majority were overweight," says Naughton, president of Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based community revitalization consultancy.
Back in the 1990s, excess weight was the least of the students' troubles. The crime rate in East Lake Meadows, a neighborhood housing project nicknamed Little Vietnam, was 18 times the national average, fueled by a thriving, multimillion-dollar drug trade. No grocer would risk opening a store in such a crime-ridden community, so fresh fruits and vegetables were in short supply. Children rarely exercised – to stay out of harm's way, they hid indoors.
Today, East Lake is a heartening model for how community revitalization efforts can change lives, and its history stands as an instructive example of how income and other social conditions – so-called social determinants – affect the health of individuals and communities at large. Obesity, Naughton says, was only a symptom of the real sickness afflicting East Lake: poverty and hopelessness from decades of unrelenting racial and economic discrimination.
Before revitalization efforts began in full force in 1996, just 13 percent of East Lake Meadows residents had steady jobs, and incomes averaged around $5,000 a year. The elementary school was ill-equipped to break the decades-old cycle of poverty: Only 5 percent of fifth-graders could meet state math standards.