Nicholas A. Freudenberg, distinguished professor of public health at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College.
In New York City, childhood obesity has hit epidemic proportions.
In London, the startling stats are the same – the rate has doubled in only 25 years.
This got Nicholas A. Freudenberg , distinguished professor of public health at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, to wondering: What do these two leading “obesCities” have in common?
His question has turned into an international quest. In collaboration with London Metropolitan University, he convened health officials, researchers, advocates and leaders from the two cities. The result is “A Tale of Two ObesCities <pdf>,” a far-reaching list of recommendations that provides a blueprint for changing public-health policies across the globe.
“By understanding what’s happening in these two cities, we can apply the collective lessons learned to other cities around the world,” he says.
Freudenberg, a Hunter College graduate who has been a member of Hunter’s faculty for three decades, says the project would not have been possible without the extensive resources of The City University of New York and its unique connections to New York City and New York State’s governmental agencies.
“The CUNY School of Public Health can be a center for international urban health research because New York City is well situated to be a model city of the 21st century,” he says. “The problems we have experienced as one of the world’s leading cities – air pollution, asthma, the inequities between rich and poor, infectious diseases like TB and HIV and the widespread availability of unhealthy food – make it a premier learning lab for solving the public-health problems that developing world cities will face in coming decades.”
The CUNY School of Public Health works closely with city and state agencies as well as community organizations and social movements. “These relationships, which are formal and informal, give us a perfect platform to study and change public health policy,” Freudenberg says. “Few other universities have this kind of relationship with groups that are in a position to change rules and regulations.”
“The Tale of Two ObesCities"
For example, Freudenberg’s research contributed to a recent New York State decision to change its policies on Medicaid. One of his studies showed that female inmates who had Medicaid after release were more likely to stay out of jail than those without coverage. This helped persuade the state legislature to pass a law that restores immediate Medicaid coverage to jail and prison inmates after their release.
“Many of those who are incarcerated have infectious diseases like HIV and TB as well as mental illnesses,” Freudenberg says. “By losing Medicaid, they lost access to any health care when they got out of jail and therefore jeopardized their own and the public’s health. The change in coverage will improve public safety and save the government money.”
Freudenberg also was instrumental in getting New York City to do a better job of enforcing its laws on childhood lead poisoning. “Unlike some other researchers, I believe we have the obligation to bring our findings into the public arena,” he says.
The CUNY School of Public Health has a direct connection to the community through its students, many of whom live in neighborhoods where public-health problems are prevalent. “This gives us a bridge to those communities that allows us to develop grounded interventions,” he says. “If these interventions are planned only by outsiders, they often don’t work.”
It was through his students that Freudenberg first learned of the dimensions of New York City’s HIV epidemic in the early 1980s, leading him to begin 15 years of research on HIV prevention in low-income urban communities. “Many of our students are front-line workers in public agencies,” he says. “Some of mine were working in the New York City Health Department at that time, and their reports alerted me to the issue and got me involved with it.”
Since the completion of the New York City-London childhood obesity study, Freudenberg has been fielding inquiries for help from other cities around the world. He recently was invited to the University of Western Cape in South Africa to discuss a collaboration, and after he gave a lecture and met with researchers and local officials at Portugal’s University of Lisbon, the city formed a task force on childhood obesity.
“If we can share our lessons with these cities, we can save them from repeating mistakes we made while also avoiding preventable illnesses and reducing health-care costs,” he says. “That’s what the CUNY School of Public Health is all about – making a lasting difference that benefits everyone.”