ChildObesity180 to kick off New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race this fall

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy’s organization ChildObesity180 has partnered with the New Balance Foundation and the 100 Mile Club to create the Billion Mile Race. Steve Cohn Photography

This upcoming academic year, ChildObesity180, an organization at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy that strives to facilitate research on childhood obesity prevention, will officially debut the New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race at schools across the United States.

Based on a partnership with the New Balance Foundation and the 100 Mile Club, the initiative seeks to get elementary school students across the nation to collectively run, walk or wheel a billion miles over the next three years, according to Director of Operations and Communications at ChildObesity180 Linda Harelick.

Director of Sustainability at ChildObesity180 Elizabeth Nahar explained that the New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race is part of ChildObesity180’s Active Schools Acceleration Project (ASAP), which has focused on school-based physical activity for a number of years and looks to unearth and increase the scale of innovative programs.

ASAP launched a national Physical Activity Innovation Competition to discover and support programs that focused on physical activity in 2012, according to Christina Economos, who is the co-founder and director of ChildObesity180, the New Balance chair in Childhood Nutrition and an assistant professor at the Friedman School.

“Through ASAP, we did a national competition,” she said. “First Lady [Michelle Obama] helped us announce it, and it was really a call for innovation. So we asked schools across America to submit a proposal and show us what they were doing in their schools to get kids up and moving.”

Economos added that they received 500 applications that were programmatic and/or technology-based. The selected candidates then underwent a robust judging process, according to Nahar.

“It was really a swath of people who care about physical activity across America from different perspectives, and they went through a standardized review process using a rubric, and then a number of programs basically surfaced as being innovative and potentially impactful,” Economos said.

The judges then made their final decisions, according to Harelick.

“We narrowed down to nine winners: two national winners and then seven regional winners,” she said. “And from there came three very promising programs that we thought that were scalable, they were cost-effective, they had the potential to increase physical activity and they were, probably most importantly, fun for kids.”

From the three selected programs — one of which was the 100 Mile Club — 1,000 schools were offered a $1,000 grant to adopt one of the programs during the 2013-2014 school year, according to Harelick. She noted that the the 100 Mile Club was selected by about 70 percent of the schools.

“Over the course of the year, we collected data — and on some schools we collected objective data by having the kids wear accelerometers — and we did interviews of people who were implementing it and site visits,” Economos explained, noting that the 100 Mile Club showed the potential to be inclusive within schools and scalable across the nation. 

From there, ChildObesity180 looked to scale the program, which aims to get kids to commit to running, walking or wheeling 100 miles within a school year, and expand its reach further across the country, according to Harelick.

“What we realized is that … a walking and running club is just a very simple, cost-effective thing that you can do in a school to increase physical activity, and so based on its popularity, we thought to ourselves, ‘Our goal is not 1,000 schools, it’s 25,000 schools over the next three years,'” she said.

Harelick explained that the idea for the New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race was developed based on the realization that if ChildObesity180 wanted to scale the program to 25,000 schools, it would not be possible to give out grants of $1,000 to each school.

“Then we came up with this idea of having a challenge — challenging the country to add up to a billion miles over the next three years and really to drive excitement for implementing a walking and running club,” she said. “And then, we also are thinking about doing sort of some healthy competition, whether it’s between schools or between school districts, to create excitement and fun around it.”

There is a preregistration form available online for schools to sign up for the program for the upcoming year, according to Nahar. She added that the site, which should be fully live by early May, will allow schools to sign up and create their own page in order to log their miles and see how they compare to other schools in their districts, states or across the country.

The actual tracking and logging of miles may vary school by school, but the program looks to establish one or several “champions” who will assume responsibility for making sure students log miles, and then upload the records of those miles to the web platform, according to Nahar.

“School by school, they may take on the 100 Mile Club for a year or multiple years; that really remains to be seen,” Economos said. “You need a champion in the school who’s going to really lead the way for the kids.”

Economos noted that the 100 Mile Club has been operating successfully at schools in southern California for over a decade.

“Once it becomes part of a culture, the kids really want to go [at] it year after year,” she said. “There was a real sense of community and sustainability that we saw with the program, which was another reason we chose it as our lead. So we’re hoping that schools that take it on will do it for multiple years.”

Nahar explained that ChildObesity180 has had a longstanding connection with the New Balance Foundation, which has provided funding for fellowships as well as the chair position at the Friedman School, occupied by Economos. 

“Over the last year or two we’ve continued being in touch with [the New Balance Foundation] about our work, and collectively came up with a collaboration idea where they would provide philanthropic support for the New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race,” she said. “Their foundation is really committed to … child obesity prevention and also, obviously, physical activity, so it was a really nice connection.”

The foundation has pledged $2.55 million to the program over the next three years, according to Harelick.

“It will hopefully be this national campaign that gets schools and kids excited about getting up and moving and being consistently physically active,” Economos said. “It provides an opportunity for schools to be leaders and appear up on the website on the leaderboard if they’re really accruing a lot of miles and celebrate and reward the kids along the path to their 100 miles over the school year.”