News: Local

Posted on Mar 28, 2013

Spotlight on Cambridge, Massachusetts

“Our family lives in Cambridge because we can walk, bike, or ride the T [subway] just about anywhere, and because of the great food culture– from grocery options to restaurants to farmers’ markets and school gardens. Our kids have grown up playing sports in city parks and exploring Cambridge on their bikes.” – Kim Motylewski, Cambridge resident and Manager of the Cambridge Winter Farmers Market

Cambridge (population 105,162) is a tight-knit community with a strong mix of cultural and social diversity, intellectual vitality, and technological innovation. Across the Charles River from Boston, Cambridge preserves the neighborhood intimacy of a small city while serving as one of the most cosmopolitan intersections of individuals and ideas in the nation. The city is home to two world-renowned institutions, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a quarter of residents were born outside the U.S. Through a vibrant spirit of collaboration, city and community partners work together to improve the health and well-being of all residents.

While the Cambridge population is largely affluent and well-educated, 17% of adults have a high school education or less and 18% of children live at or below the federal poverty line.

“Our goal is to level the playing field so that a child growing up in one of the city’s housing developments has access to the same opportunities to lead a healthy, successful life as a child from a more affluent family,” said Ellen Semonoff, Assistant City Manager for Cambridge, Department of Human Service Programs.


Cambridge is considered a national leader in healthy weight promotion for children. The city signed on to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign in February 2011 at a special ceremony in Cambridge with national health officials.


In the late 1990s, a coalition of public health professionals, civic leaders and cities agencies, academics, parent activists, and the Cambridge Public Schools began working together to improve the school environment so that kids would eat healthier and be more active.

With funding from several federal grants in the 2000s, the district has been able to increase the availability of whole foods and locally grown produce on school menus and expand physical activity offerings.

Fifteen years ago, Cambridge public school students ate a fairly typical school lunch: American chop suey, chicken nuggets, canned fruit in syrup. There were no fresh vegetables.

The cafeteria landscape changed dramatically in 2006 when a school chef was brought in to create nutritious recipes using locally-grown ingredients. The chef works closely with public health department nutrition staff who have organized taste tests; coached kitchen staff; and with the school chef, have helped develop menus and rethink how food is presented to children.

In all, more than 50 healthy items have been added to school menus. Many new dishes have become instant hits, including Doro Wat (a spicy Ethiopian chicken stew), zingy chickpea salad, and steamed broccoli. Another big change is how food is prepared in school kitchens. Where kitchen staff once relied almost exclusively on canned and frozen foods, they now cook most dishes from scratch using “whole foods” like fresh vegetables and brown rice. For these efforts, Cambridge was awarded a Bronze Medal for Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties Goal III: Smart Servings for Students.

All K–8 public school students also have the opportunity to gain “hands on” experience growing fruits and vegetables in school gardens operated by CitySprouts, a local nonprofit.

Other improvements include student health and fitness report cards, which are sent home annually; a revamped school district P.E. curriculum that features ballroom dancing, swim lessons, cycling, and other popular activities that children can enjoy throughout their lives; and the adoption of model policies.

School-based policies have included a ban on junk food in school vending machines (2004); school nutrition guidelines that require the public schools to meet or exceed federal nutrition guidelines (2006); and a federally mandated School Wellness Policy (2007).


Cambridge is tackling obesity and other diet-related conditions through policy approaches and changing the urban landscape. Key components:

  • Cambridge in Motion, coordinated by the Cambridge Public Health Department, supports the city’s community development and school departments in implementing programs and policies that make it easier for residents and workers to eat healthy and be active. Current projects include implementing Complete Streets policies, promoting healthy food choices at corner stores, improving access to farmers’ markets, increasing opportunities for active living, and improving school nutrition. Cambridge in Motion is funded by a federal Community Transformation Grant to Middlesex County and is part of the statewide Mass in Motion initiative
  • The Cambridge Food and Fitness Policy Council, led by the Cambridge Public Health Department, was established in 2011 to explore policy, systems, and practices for making healthy foods and fitness opportunities available to more residents.
  • The Cambridge 0-8 Council brings together child care providers and parents to promote the healthy development of families and young children. Council members and child care directors are informed about the Let’s Move! campaign and trained on healthy eating and physical activity strategies. Cambridge received a Bronze Medal in Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties Goal I: Start Early, Start Smart for this work.
  • Cambridge Community Development Department, the city’s planning agency, has created safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists, implemented commuting polices that encourage walking and biking to work, launched a bike share program in 2012. The city’s Healthy Parks and Playgrounds initiative aims to provide a wide range of play opportunities for children and adults throughout the city that are fun, physically challenging, developmentally appropriate, and socially engaging. Cambridge has received a Gold Medal in Goal V: Active Kids at Play for mapping the playspaces in their community and launching policies, programs and initiatives to increase physical activity in the city.


The city’s multi-faceted efforts to address childhood obesity epidemic are showing results. Based on height and weight data collected by the public schools and analyzed by the health department, obesity among Cambridge public school children in grades K–8 declined from 21% in 2004 to 16% in 2012. There are also corresponding increases in healthy eating and physical activity among Cambridge public school students (grades 6–12) over the past 10 years.


  • The National League of Cities awarded Cambridge the following Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties medals: Bronze Medal in Goal I, Bronze Medal in Goal III, Bronze Medal in Goal IV, and Bronze, Silver and Gold Medals in Goal V.
  • Cambridge was one of six U.S. communities awarded a 2013 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Roadmaps to Health Prize for achievements in the areas of healthy eating/physical activity, strengthening families, urban planning, and integrating public health and clinical care.
  • The USDA awarded the Cambridge Public Schools a 2013 HealthierUS School Challenge bronze award for demonstrating a commitment to excellence in nutrition and physical education in the district’s 12 elementary schools.
  • Cambridge was named Best Walking City in America in 2008 and 2012 by Prevention Magazine.
  • The U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services awarded the 2007 Innovation in Prevention Award (schools category) to the City of Cambridge and the Healthy Children Task Force.
  • America’s Promise Alliance selected Cambridge as one of 100 Best Communities for Young People for six consecutive years (2005 – 2012).

To learn more about Cambridge’s efforts, visit their LMCTC community profile page.