Published on December 2nd, 2011 | by Becky Striepe11
How Can We Address the Childhood Obesity Problem?
A Facebook pal recently asked what folks thought about Georgia’s new childhood obesity campaign. It garnered some really good discussion, and it got me thinking a lot about how we can tackle this childhood obesity problem.
If you’re not familiar with the campaign, there are billboards popping up all over the state with images of obese children paired with a message about the health and happiness risks associated with childhood obesity. The question is: is this the best way to address this issue? I’m not 100% sure.
The Obesity Action Coalition is asking the Georgia Children’s Health Alliance (GCHA), the group behind these billboards, to take them down.
I think an awareness campaign is a great idea, but focusing on health instead of weight and using some of those dollars to actually increase at-risk kids’ access to fresh, healthy food might be a more effective and less damaging way to approach this problem. The shock factor definitely gets folks’ attention, but are you going to make a positive life change because of it? I also worry that this negative imagery could lead a lot of kids down the road to an eating disorder, rather then to good health.
Honestly, I’m torn. Childhood obesity is a serious problem, and I do think it’s important that we get the message out that it’s a life or death issue. Is there a way to do this that’s more positive?
Fighting Childhood Obesity
I heard a great story on NPR the other day about a childhood obesity program in Menlo Park, California. Unlike the GCHA campaign, this one works with families to focus on health rather than weight and is very sensitive to self esteem issues:
The last thing a parent wants is to saddle a child with a self-image problem or eating disorder. So instead, Zedeck encourages parents to tell their child that the whole family could stand to be healthier, and the program is something they can do together.
The trouble is, a program like this is expensive, and many at-risk kids come from lower-income families who can’t afford to pay for a regular support group to help them lose weight. The Menlo Park program has grants to help out, which is awesome. I wonder if GCHA could use some of their dollars to help fund a program like this? Or even to launch food education in schools, so that kids can learn about healthy eating. Cooking with kids or helping schools launch a school garden can go a long way in getting kids excited about fresh, healthy food.
Accessibility and Food Deserts
The area where education can’t make a difference is accessibility. Many low-income families live in “food deserts,” or areas with limited or even no access to fresh, healthy food. Even when fresh food is available, cost can make it inaccessible to the kids who need it most.
As we saw in Food, Inc, families living on a very limited income can’t always afford fresh, healthy food. Fresh produce is expensive, and meanwhile you can fill your kid’s belly for a dollar or two at McDonald’s, thanks to government subsidies for the industries that produce all of that junk food.
I think it’s going to take more than a shock campaign to address the childhood obesity problem. We need to educate kids and parents in a sensitive way, but we also need to take a look at our food system as a whole. We need to stop subsidizing meats, dairy, corn, and soy and start giving more support to farmers who are growing healthy fruits and vegetables. At the same time, we need to get healthy food into these kids’ neighborhoods at supermarkets, farmers markets, or school/community gardens.
I’m not saying that kids have to give up all junk food and start eating vegan, but I think that pinning the obesity problem on kids and parents ignores the larger, systemic issue feeding childhood obesity.
Childhood obesity is a complicated problem, and I’m sure a lot of you guys have thought about it as much as I have. I’d love to hear what you think!
Image Credit: Photo via Obesity Action Coalition