— By G. Jeff Golden

The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A local fitness instructor is piloting a new national program in an attempt to combat childhood obesity and the diseases that come along with it.

Lori Meszaros, who teaches fitness classes at San Juan College's Health and Human Performance Center, is acting as a lightning rod to bring the national Safe Routes to School Program to Farmington. Safe Routes to School encourages children who live within a few miles of their school to skip buses or their parent's cars and travel on foot or on bicycles. By way of federal funding, the program helps to create and maintain safe paths for the ambling children to use.

"If they start doing these things as kids, it becomes a lifelong habit ... and reduces the risk of diabetes and obesity later in life," Meszaros said.

In 1996, Farmington city and school officials succeeded in manufacturing a moderately successful local walk-to-school program at all 10 district elementary schools, said Stephen Krest, traffic engineering administrator for the city of Farmington. The federal Safe Routes to School initiative, however, presents an opportunity to drive the effort into a much higher gear. Supporters simply were waiting for a community member to step up and champion the project.

"We've been waiting for someone like Lori for years now," Krest said.

Safe Routes to School was established in 2006 and is maintained by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration.


Each state is awarded $1 million annually for the program, and the state decides how to dispense the money to eligible schools. Phase I funding, which can be as much as $15,000, is awarded to districts that adequately show community support of Safe Routes to School.

Meszaros, motivated by the fact that her daughter, Dylan, will begin attending class at Mesa Verde Elementary during the 2009-10 school year, has taken the initiative to try to secure Phase I funding. Mesa Verde was chosen to be the pilot school for Safe Routes to School during the 2008-09 academic year.

Meszaros has formed an advisory committee to display community support. Two city officials, a representative from the police department and two health care professionals already have agreed to serve on the committee.

Joe Delmagori, with the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally mandated transportation forum for areas of 50,000 people or more, is one of the city advisors and is working closely with the program.

Phase I funding, which Meszaros says she will apply for in December, primarily is for promoting awareness of Safe Routes to School and gathering information from the community. City and school infrastructure changes usually don't come until Phase II.

A $207,000 walking bridge over a major road in Silver City recently was built as part of Safe Routes to School Phase II, Meszaros said.

"Infrastructure improvements for the city of Farmington primarily means sidewalk improvements," said Krest, who is on the advisory committee. "That's where I come in ... making sure the sidewalks where our children are walking are safe, that the street crossings we provide are adequately marked and signed."

Safety on the designated routes shouldn't be a problem. For extra security, some of the Phase I money may go toward vests or flags for the children to mark themselves.

"Some statistics have shown that more children are injured in a car coming to school than kids walking or biking," Meszaros said.

If plans progress as they hope, Meszaros and Krest both expressed a desire to change the flow of traffic coming into schools, to make sure the pedestrian children and those riding in cars or buses to school arrive in separate areas.

But for now, Meszaros is trying to get the ball rolling. The first official committee meeting is scheduled for Aug. 6, though an exact time and place have yet to be determined. Meszaros is planning for Oct. 8, International Walk to School Day, to be the coming-out party for Safe Routes to School in Farmington.

G. Jeff Golden: