Childhood obesity, which was once labeled as a “problem,” is now being called an epidemic and all over the news, from talk shows to medical reports, experts are saying the same thing: children are not healthy and we need to do something about it. How does a problem become an epidemic?In 2004, children who were overweight were considered a “growing concern” in the medical field as they began developing weight-related diseases like diabetes at a younger age. This elevated concern with the diet of children has caused everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to local activists to stand up and demand change.Although we should already be familiar with some of the culprits of childhood obesity, (poor diet and lack of exercise), many people are not and the statistics coming from the Center for Disease Control, as well as other institutes are alarming. The CDC has determined that obesity, behind the use of tobacco products, is the second leading contributor to premature death in the United States. Other studies released from the CDC show the prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008.
According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, with Georgia’s children ranking in as some of the heaviest in the country. Thankfully, the CDC is not the only institution taking notice, and action has slowly been building over the past few years to bring about solutions.
A History of Attempted Change
The issue of childhood obesity has had a long history of champions who have tried to lead the way and shine light on the subject. Long before Michelle Obama began speaking about the state of children’s health; Sen. William Frist and Sen. Edward Kennedy were also trying to bring about change. In 2004 they presented two bills to Congress; the Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act and the Childhood Obesity Reduction Act respectively. Both called for action to be taken to prevent childhood obesity within homes, schools, and communities. Neither of the bills made it out of committee for a full vote.
Then in 2005, former President Bill Clinton joined forces with the American Heart Association to form The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, whose goal is to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity by 2015 and to empower children nationwide to make healthy lifestyle choices.
Today, changes continue to be made. On Dec. 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which aims to promote health and reduce childhood obesity. Among some of the things it will tackle is providing better nutritional quality of school meals, establish national nutrition standards for all foods sold at schools and connect more kids to local produce through farm-to-school programs. Michelle Obama also introduced her Let’s Move campaign, a nationwide initiative that focuses on helping parents get the information they need to make healthy food choices at home, improve the quality of food in the school system, improve access and affordability of healthy food, and finally, increase physical education for kids.
It seems like everywhere you look, different people are taking an interest. TV shows like Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution have sprung up showcasing the need for healthier diets for kids, and on a more global level The Aruba Ministry of Health and Sports has announced that it will host the first-ever Pan American Conference on Obesity with Special Attention to Childhood Obesity on June 8-11, 2011. Even here in Atlanta, advocates are joining forces to bring awareness to the issue.
On the Local Level
Although the path to change is an ever-growing one, it is important to note that the change is coming on both a national level and a local one. Recently, local movers and shakers brought attention to the topic in a big way at the Enlightenment Luncheon Series, co-chaired by child advocate and philanthropist, Stephanie Blank, environmental activist and eco-living expert, Laura Turner Seydel and philanthropist, Lisa Rayner Tush and hosted by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University Department of Pediatrics. “The main purpose of our Enlightenment Luncheon series is to raise awareness on children’s environmental health issues,” explains Tush, “I think it’s sad that obesity has made its way into a health issue. It speaks volumes on the change in our nation as a whole.” The event invited experts from Georgia Organics, the CDC and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Hospital to speak on the subject. One of them was Medical Director of Child Wellness at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Hospital Dr. Stephanie Walsh, who has over 18 years of experience in treating children with obesity. “The crisis of childhood obesity is the responsibility of every Georgia citizen,” says Walsh. “As a society, we need to take ownership and act immediately on this issue for the sake of the future health of Georgia’s population. I stay positive about this cause because childhood obesity is preventable and curable.” Another expert on the panel, Executive Director at Georgia Organics Alice Rolls echoes this outlook that change is possible. “I think we’ve reached a tipping point, not only on the scales, but on acceptance and understanding of the long term consequences of this epidemic,” says Rolls, “If we are armed with the knowledge of this issue we can start to make changes in our own homes to help our children live healthier lives.”
The Power To Change
After taking a look at the facts and numbers over the past few years, the most important thing to remember is that we have the power to make a difference in our own homes. We cannot simply rely on the food industry alone to provide us with healthy choices, sometimes we must go outside conventional super markets and take a greater interest in where our food is coming from. “We have to look in the mirror because in the end it boils down to personal responsibility,” says Rolls, “The food industry has not been a laudable ally in healthy eating and our food landscape is littered with bad food.” Georgia Organics’ work with the Dekalb Board of Health on a study on two neighborhoods in south DeKalb County revealed that between 70 and 80 percent of the food outlets lacked fresh fruits and vegetables.
Despite the seemingly uphill battle we face, many local companies and schools are taking part in an expanded push forward to make a difference in the community and make healthier food more readily available to children. One of them is the nationally known Farm to School program, now operating in 50 states, that according to its website, “connects schools (grades K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers.” Rolls adds, “Locally, Georgia Organics is now working with five school districts and a Farm to School Alliance to grow these programs statewide.” Additionally, groups like Oakhurst Community Garden and Truly Living Well Urban Farms are helping to show people that it’s easy to eat healthy, delicious food and help support the people that grow it. Other local programs include PowerUp! which formed in February 2010 to combat Georgia’s childhood obesity through behavior modification regarding physical activities and health and nutrition education. Led by the Resurgens Charitable Foundation, the PowerUp! initiative includes a combination of efforts from organizations such as the Georgia PTA, YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Education, and many more.
We all have the power to change our eating habits and that change begins at home and is carried through the school system as well. “Every school, including preschools, should have an edible garden in place so students can learn all they can about healthy food,” says Seydel, “Captain Planet Foundation has been instrumental in establishing these gardens at many of our local schools, ultimately helping students become more engaged about the foods they eat, more aware of the food choices they make and more willing to adopt a healthy food diet.” Teya Ryan, GPB Media President & Executive Director believes in the power of media as well to help keep parents and families informed. “It’s important that parents and caregivers are educated about health issues, and that’s why I believe that our GPBeWell initiative is such a vital resource,” explains Ryan, “GPB is using all of our television, radio and web platforms to promote healthy lifestyles and provide resources that parents and caregivers can use with their children.”
With all the local and national level programs and awareness initiatives in place, it’s easier now more than ever to make the right decision about what you and your children eat. The most important change begins when you make the choice to eat healthy, exercise and lead by example. “It’s important for everyone to be aware because reversing this crisis requires support and help from everyone,” says Stephanie Blank, “Even if you don’t have kids or your family is not touched directly by obesity, the entire country is on the hook for the consequences. We are all in this together.” The time for action is now. You have the power to positively encourage your kids to eat healthy and make sure they stay active. Just last month, Michelle Obama came to Georgia and spoke at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta in celebration of the first year anniversary of the Let’s Move campaign. She reflected that although there is still much to do, we should all remain positive. She reminded the crowd that, “We have a voice and when we come together and use that voice we can change things. So keep using that voice and keep demanding better health for your kids.”
Tips from CDC for Parents
- Encourage healthy eating habits by providing healthy food options and making them readily available.
- Look for ways to make favorite dishes healthier.
- Remove calorie-rich temptations.
- Encourage kids to stay active and enjoy some form of physical activity or participate in sports.
- Reduce sedentary time such as time in front of the TV.
Every Day Differences You Can Make
“Changing your food habits is a journey that takes time. But there are a tremendous amount of resources and information to help people along the way,” says Alice Rolls. Here are just a few tips Rolls suggests.
- Find local food growers in your area
- Support restaurants that support local farmers
- Attend culinary demonstrations at farmers markets, food events and workshops to have a better understanding of where your food is coming from. Georgia Organics annual conference will host 12 farm and food tours, 42 educational workshops, and more on March 11-12, 2011 in Savannah .
- Start your own garden!
Alliance for a Healthier Generation
Let’s Move Campaign
Captain Planet Foundation
Center for Disease Control (CDC)
Truly Living Well Urban Farms
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
Fuel Up to Play 60
The NFL’s Play 60 campaign