Reflecting on Childhood Obesity Awareness Month

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity

A commentary on Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, by Joseph W. Thompson, MD, MPH,
Director, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity

As the nation continues to observe Childhood Obesity Awareness Month for the first time—reflecting the increased understanding of the epidemic’s impact—it is vital that we do more than just acknowledge the problem. We must work together to ensure that all children have the opportunity to grow up healthy. This means recognizing how our environments contribute to childhood obesity, and working to improve the quality of spaces where children live, learn, and play.

At its core, the childhood obesity epidemic has been caused by an imbalance in the amount of energy our children take in through food and drinks and the amount of energy they expend through normal growth, physical activity, and daily living. The cause of this imbalance is the unintended consequence of societal and environmental changes that have made it difficult and often impossible for families to make healthy choices. This is especially true for families living in low-income communities, African American and Latino neighborhoods, rural areas, and in the South where obesity rates are significantly higher. Almost 40 percent of Mexican American children and nearly 36 percent of African American children ages 6-19 are overweight or obese, compared with 29 percent of White children.

One of the biggest obstacles to fighting childhood obesity has been the view that weight is primarily a matter of personal responsibility. This omits the critical role environments have in affecting the choices we make. For our children, we have allowed their daily experience to occur in a setting that is hostile to their health and not supportive of a healthy lifestyle.

For families living in communities where the only nearby place to purchase food is a gas station or convenience store making healthy choices is difficult at best. Many neighborhoods also lack safe, well-maintained parks, playgrounds, and bike paths. Poorly-designed streets and sidewalks, or a lack of them, prevent children from safely walking or biking to school. School gyms where children might otherwise play are locked on weekends and during school vacations when community organizations could utilize them for neighborhood activities.

Schools themselves, have too often become environments that perpetuate the energy imbalance that causes obesity. They offer easy access to vending machines and other outlets that sell items high in calories and low in nutrition including sugar-sweetened beverages. And, amid budget cuts and focus on test results, many schools have reduced or eliminated physical education programs and reduced time for physical activity. Meanwhile, a growing body of research indicates physical activity boosts kids’ academic performance.

The result is that nearly one-third of children in America are overweight or obese. Children are developing “adult” diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and an array of other chronic conditions. We are all affected by this epidemic in one way or another, including reduced economic productivity and military readiness, and increased cost and utilization of an already overburdened health care system. We must all work together to solve the crisis.

It is encouraging to see communities, large and small, throughout the country take action to incorporate health in their strategic planning and to involve non-traditional partners in those efforts. These partnerships include parks and recreation offices and police to improve opportunities for safe places to play, merchants and local farmers to provide opportunities for families to purchase affordable nutritious foods, developers who incorporate sidewalks and complete streets in community design, educators who create healthy learning environments that teach children how to live healthy lives, and policymakers who recognize that health must be considered in every policy.

The most successful national policies will be informed by models that are already working on the ground in communities across America. These inspiring efforts are helping to build a national movement to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.

For example, Little Rock’s Forest Park Elementary School which, like many other schools across the nation, recognized the danger posed by rush hour traffic and kids being dropped off and picked up at school by car. Through a Safe Routes to School grant, they successfully established crosswalks, built sidewalks, and implemented traffic-slowing measures resulting in more families walking to and from school each day.

Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative is an innovative policy solution to the problem of inadequate food access. Begun in 2004, FFFI has led to the development of 68 supermarkets and fresh food outlets in underserved areas across Pennsylvania, and is now a successful model for communities looking to improve food access and generate jobs and economic development.

These are tough economic times many will say the country can’t afford to address the childhood obesity crisis. I say we cannot afford to wait. Heightened poverty is actually exacerbating the crisis of childhood obesity. It’s no coincidence that states with the highest childhood obesity rates also have some of the highest poverty rates and greatest needs.

We know childhood obesity can be reversed. The question is, can we work together to get it done?

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