How Can We Address the Childhood Obesity Problem?

childhood obesity billboardsA 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 familiesΒ  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

11 thoughts on “How Can We Address the Childhood Obesity Problem?”

  1. Do you really think the kids’ self-image may suffer due to these billboards? Surely not as bad as it may suffer when they watch tv or read a magazine with impossibly thin, beautiful people. I’m happy that someone decided to stop sugar coating the issue. This campaign is not directed to kids: it’s directed to parents, who have the power to control what their kids eat

    1. As someone who has struggled with body image issues from a pretty young age, I definitely worry that this campaign could be damaging to kids. I don’t think you’re really making a fair comparison. Isn’t that like saying – why worry about poison in the water if there’s poison in the food? Both strike me as bad for kids, and whether it’s directed at them or not, kids aren’t blind, you know what I mean? That said, I agree that it’s time to start taking childhood obesity seriously.

      1. We should keep things in perspective. The obesity epidemic has reached such dramatic proportions that it is time to switch our concern from “body image issues” to the reality of an impending future of heart disease and diabetes. Coming up with euphemisms to ensure that nobody gets their feelings hurt has not achieved anything so far.

        1. Nice point Gloria.
          Consider what happens with the anti Cigarette advertising campaign. I assume that USA is the same as Oz.
          Graphic images of people dying of emphysema, bloody sores, amputations, black gunk being squeezed out of lungs. At one stage we had the grim reaper taking people away.
          Do smokers have image issues after seeing this? Not as far as I am aware. There are still smokers in large numbers.
          So the graphic images do not appear to work , what is working is banning smoking in public places, hotels, restaurants, anywhere food is served, aircraft etc. It is now just too difficult for smokers.
          I suggest a tax on the sugar and oil content of food, as a first step, from takeaway food places, and the cheap and nasties like Maccas, KFC Burger King etc.. The day it becomes more expensive to eat take away than prepare fresh food yourself is the day that attitudes will start slowly changing.
          Becky, don’t take me negatively, I agree with your basic principle of health eating. I am just concerned about people taking responsibility for their diet and not passing the buck to someone else in the form of support groups.

  2. Let me give you an Australian perspective on this.
    I am totally horrified at your comment “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”
    Only in America do you need support groups to lose weight. Weight loss, or any other problem, is a personal responsibility. For children they need parental support, not support groups. They need medical practitioners to lay it on the line and give 3 clear messages. 1. You are overweight, 2. You need to eat less/more healthily, 3 you need to exercise more. None of this is psychologically scarring, except in USA.
    When parents, and nutritionists and medical practitioners abrogate responsibility to “support groups” there is a problem. And the problem is not with the child or the ability of parents to pay for some imaginary need.
    Enough said.

    1. I hear ya, but I’m not sure I agree. Unfortunately, we live in a culture of unhealthy eating, and for someone who grew up eating fast food and unhealthy junk, it takes education and support to make that lifestyle change. I don’t think this issue is only in America, either. We definitely have our problems, but childhood obesity isn’t unique to the U.S.

      1. Becky, you may have a culture of unhealthy eating, and you are right it is not just an American problem. However the solution lies with the individual. Each person must take the decision to lose weight and then act on it. People can do that in their own homes today. They don’t need to call in support groups and counsellors.
        These choices are hard. I know. You eat a carrot, your stomach is rumbling and you dream about a burger. But it is just willpower what happens next, do you weaken or not.?
        Children need parental support and role models.

        Thanks everyone for the follow up comments.

  3. Hi Becky,
    Thanks for this very poignant post. As a teacher, I am intimately involved with children and the factors that affect their eating habits (including the lack of food education). While I am still undecided as to whether the billboards will do more harm than good, I do strongly agree with your point that obesity is not just an individual problem — it’s a systemic issue that has multiple causes, including and most importantly the environment a person lives in. I recently wrote a blog post about this, in which I lament the fact that we don’t have a culture of health in America, except in a few privileged places:
    Thanks for the post!

  4. Connie F. Smith

    I live in Atlanta and I also work in public health. I am also mentoring the young people in my community and church. I think the Georgia Children’s Health Alliance (GCHA) awareness campaign to address childhood obesity is on target!!!! We have to stand up and address the elephants in the room. They are staring us in the face. If we do not provide education to our children on nutrition, ,exercise, and general health, we could be raising the next generation of sick people. We should also add self-image and self-worth classes so the children can learn to love the whole person and not just the image in the mirror. The images of the obese children make you look, think and act. Let’s focus on the “action” part and get moving. I hope there is a phase II to the obesity campaign to give an update on the progress of their road to better eating, exercising and living. Finally, parents model what children eat so the parents are very much addressed in the obesity awareness campaign. It would not be as effective if we placed the faces of the parents on the billboard — unless they are obese too. I hope you get my points. The Atlanta campaign has its merits even if people are upset over the decision to use obese children in the ads. Kudos to CCHOA and all local partners. Let’s end obesity — for children and adults – in Georgia!

    Background on GCHA: Georgia Children’s Health Alliance (GCHA) is an initiative designed to streamline the activities associated with improving child health issues by fostering a culture of statewide collaboration. After looking at major child health indicators, such as those tracked by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and federal and state agencies, the data revealed that healthy births, childhood obesity, and child abuse and neglect are among the top issues facing children in Georgia. Based on their short- and long-term consequences, the number of children impacted and the level of stakeholder support, these issues have been selected as the initial focus areas for GCHA.

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