Obesity kills, it steals from our quality of life and the quantity of our years. It leads to other serious illnesses – the ones we dread the most: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It hits hardest with our children because they are in their formative years, establishing habits and lifestyles that will imprint the rest of their lives, contributing to how well they socialize, absorb their education, stay out of trouble, and think of themselves. Encouraging healthy eating and making healthy food accessible not only to low-income persons, but all people in the community, is probably the best thing we can do to create a better America and world. It will pay dividends a thousand-fold in the quality and productivity of our community life.
Eight years ago, as the new Executive Director of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, I was invited to serve on the Childhood Obesity Prevention Task Force. Summoned by Supervisors James Patterson and Jerry Lenthall, it included a wide selection of organizations and persons involved in education, health, nutrition, food services, and non-profit organizations. We met regularly for a couple of years, created a strategic plan for the county, and an ongoing organization called HEAL SLO to sustain the work for the years ahead. It was my eye-opener to the problem of obesity in our country and closer to home in our county.
The Task Force was also an opportunity for me to meet the network of people in SLO County with concern for the not yet widely accepted problem of obesity in children. What I learned gave me the conviction that the Food Bank has to be part of the solution to this problem, a problem that was and unfortunately still is placing our quality of life as a community at risk.
This solution seeking movement was occurring nation-wide, of course, and now, almost 10 years later, we have learned from a Federal study reported on February 18th that there has been a 43% drop in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade, the first broad decline in this epidemic that is threatening us.
Obesity often starts in childhood. Children who are overweight or obese at 3 to 5 years old are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults.
Barry M. Popkin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has tracked American food purchases in a large data project, said families with children had been buying lower-calorie foods over the past decade; a pattern he said was unrelated to the economic downturn.
He credited those habits and changes to the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), for the decline in obesity among young children. The WIC program, which subsidizes food for low-income women, reduced funding for fruit juices, cheese and eggs and increased it for whole fruits and vegetables. *
Another possible explanation is that some combination of state, local and federal policies aimed at reducing obesity is starting to make a difference. First lady, Michelle Obama, has led a campaign to change the eating habits of children and increase exercise, and 10,000 child care centers across the country have signed on. The news announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) included a remark from Mrs. Obama: “I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans.” *
It is surprising how fast we can overcome such social ills once we put our minds and efforts toward the cause. It is a great gift to our children that will continue to pay dividends for the rest of their lives, and a great gift to the world to which they will contribute their productivity and creativity.
Looking back to that Childhood Obesity Prevention Task Force, I am proud of our county leadership and of our community to have taken this issue on and know that we are making great strides in the battle against hunger and poor nutrition right here at home. I’m grateful for the partnerships that have formed all over SLO county to address the problem locally, and I hope you are as excited as I am to see that it is working.
* Sources of information in this Blog are available upon request.