How Some States Have Begun to Fight Obesity

What do Philadelphia, New York City, Mississippi and California have in common? Each of their governments have implemented comprehensive programs to address childhood obesity and are now making progress in curbing the epidemic. Each of these communities is at the forefront of addressing a health crisis amongst the nation’s young people, and all are reporting declines in childhood obesity rates.

Why is Childhood Obesity a Problem?

Childhood obesity — calculated as a 20 percent excess over ideal weight for age, height and gender — is on the rise. Worldwide, there are an estimated 42 million overweight children below the age of 5, and 35 million of them are from developing countries. A few concerns around childhood obesity include:

  • Higher risks for diabetes, heart disease and some cancers;
  • Difficulty moving, which creates a cycle of less exercise and continued weight gain;
  • Reductions in the number of recruits eligible for military service, a danger to national security;
  • Higher morbidity and mortality rates, which increase national health care costs;
  • Isolation that can lead to bullying and the lowering of a child’s self-esteem.

Pragmatic Solutions

Making healthy food available, educating children and families about nutrition and increasing physical activity while improving the quality of food provided in schools are all among the key changes policy makers are implementing.

If you have are interested in the health of our country’s children or are in a position to influence policy in your community, consider these solutions from the Robert Wood Johnson Health Foundation Health Policy Snapshot:

1. Create Access to Fresh, Affordable Healthy Foods

In Philadelphia, a few approaches to increasing access to healthier foods included:

  • Encouraging corner stores to offer fresh food;
  • Connecting schools with local farms;
  • Bring supermarkets to underserved areas;
  • Ensuring farmers’ markets accept food stamps.

2. Pass Legislation that Combats Obesity

New York City has enacted a number of policies that have helped curb childhood obesity rates. Chain restaurants are now required to post calorie information on menus, and licensed day care centers must offer daily physical activity, limit screen time and set nutrition standards. The city also established active design guidelines for architects and planners, and created initiatives to help lower-income families buy local produce.

Philadelphia, New York City, Mississippi and California have all made long-term changes in public schools implementing strong nutrition standards to improve the quality of food and beverages available to students. Mississippi’s State Board of Education, for example, began regulating school vending machines and required the state’s public schools to provide greater physical activity time, to offer healthier foods and beverages, and to develop health education programs. Similarly, California set stronger nutrition standards for school snacks and prohibited sugar-sweetened beverages in high schools.

3. Educate the Public

Many of the previous suggestions not only increase the nutritional options available to the public, but attempt to educate them to make the right decisions regarding what they eat and drink. One example of an educational program is Mississippi’s Color Me Healthy, which offers training to create healthier child-care environments. Another Mississippi program, Fruits and Veggies–More Matters, educated more than 15,000 residents through worksite wellness programs, health fairs and school events. Public health advocates are needed in this space to help spread the word.

Achieving Declines in Obesity Rates: A Gap Persists

Despite this progress, the Robert Wood Johnson report notes that geographic, socioeconomic, racial and ethnic disparities in obesity rates remain — although Philadelphia did report some progress in achieving a decline in obesity rates among two high risk groups (African-American males and Hispanic females) and significant reductions in obesity rates among students from lower-income families.

Other cities and states have not been as successful in addressing such disparities. Mississippi reported a significant drop in overweight and obesity only among white students; however, rates for black students appear to be leveling off, which is a major shift after years of steady increases.

In New York City, obesity rates decreased among all ages, races and family income levels of K–8 public school students, but decreases were smaller among populations at high risk for obesity, including black or Hispanic children and students in high-poverty schools. And despite a statewide decline in California’s rates of overweight and obesity, 31 of its 58 counties reported increases.

Reasons for Optimism

First Lady Michelle Obama recently celebrated the third anniversary of her Let’s Move! Initiative and told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, “We’ve really changed the conversation in this country. When we started, there were a lot of people in this country who would have never thought that childhood obesity was a health crisis. But now we’re starting to see some movement on this issue.”

“Our kids are eating better at school. They’re moving more. And we’re starting to see a change in the trends and rates of obesity coming down like never before. What we’re seeing is that there’s hope, and when a nation comes together, and everyone is thinking about this issue and trying to figure out what role they can play, then we can see changes.”

Let’s hope the progress continues.


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