“THE CHILDHOOD OBESITY EPIDEMIC IS HERE” (18)
Our children have an obesity crisis. Today a full 15 percent of our children between the ages of 6 and 17 are obese, which is up from only 5 percent in the late 1970s. Of course this is not just limited to children, because a full 20 percent of all the residents in 47 states in our country are obese. That is a sizeable increase because as late as 1990, no state was above 15 percent. California is presently 36th worst in the nation for adult obesity, and 32nd worst for childhood obesity.
So what difference does this make? As a result of problems with obesity, 25 percent of the children born in our country this year are expected to incur diabetes sometime in their lives. The reason is that our children increasingly are less physically active, subjected to more stress and eat more harmful fats and fewer fruits and vegetables. And, of course, the same is generally true for everyone else in our country as well.
One reason for this striking change is that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a full 52 percent of our overall vegetable intake comes from iceberg lettuce, potatoes and canned tomatoes. This basically means that most of whatever fruits and vegetables we do eat comes from hamburgers, french fries and tomato paste.
So today for the first time in our nation’s history, children have a lower life expectancy than their parents. In fact, soon deaths related to obesity like heart disease and diabetes will surpass deaths from smoking tobacco, which today is the leading cause of death in our country.
Fortunately there actually are some easy and straightforward remedies to this epidemic. Those remedies are well known to us all: better nutrition and more daily exercise. But these remedies will not be utilized unless adults take the initiative for change for themselves and their children. Obviously children will not change on their own because fatty foods usually taste better than nutritious ones – at least until a person’s taste for foods changes. So how can we encourage adults and parents to act?
One thing being done by the YMCA and several school districts is removing things like sodas, potato chips, cookies and other high calorie, fat, salt and sugar snack “foods” from their vending machines. They are also discontinuing the sales of these items at school and community sports and other events. These unhealthy substances in their vending machines have been replaced with various waters, water drinks, fruit juices, nuts, seeds, raisons and fresh fruits and vegetables. And at their community events they are also selling more yogurt and fruit smoothies. Other critical approaches are to encourage people at every level of their lives to turn off the television and become more physically active, and to encourage families to have at least one healthy sit-down meal together each day.
More concretely, the City of Huntington Beach has a model program in place that emphasizes physical activity and increased nutrition for healthier children and communities. It is called the Oak View Renewal Partnership, and it is based at the Oak View Elementary School.
This program provides living proof that one good project can lead to another. For example, during the kick-off event for the program they distributed information about the comparison between nutritious and non-nutritious foods. This led to a food network that soon partnered with “Harvest of the Month,” which provides a monthly USDA-funded publication to all the participants that is dedicated to growing healthy students.
Soon the parents of the children focused upon the fact that nutrition is only part of the approach, and that physical activity is also a key. So they formed a girls’ running program and other sports clubs such as their soccer league that now has 22 teams. This in turn caused the teachers also to take notice, with the result that 20 of them formed “The Biggest Loser” club, with different teams competing to see which group could lose the most weight. After only eight weeks the 20 teachers lost a total of 230 pounds. And the program kept expanding with an Eat 5 Fruits and Vegetables Day, an Adult Walking Club and a Bike Campaign so they could raise money for their projects while exercising and continuing to be healthy.
Further constructive efforts come from a consortium that banded together more than 65 grocery stores and one food pantry in a retail program to increase the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables by low-income adults and their families. The program utilizes a combination of in-store merchandising, such as posters, recipe cards, aprons, and promotional activities, such as food demonstrations and store tours to expose these at-risk people to the benefits of good nutrition.
Some school districts are furthering the goals of a healthier community by sponsoring jump rope contests, walking clubs and Walk to School programs. They have also held International Walk to School days, as well as trying to implement a permanent “Walking School Bus” program where, beginning one day a week, their students will safely walk to school while picking up their fellow students along the way.
Of particular note, several of these groups are presently working to establish farmer’s markets in their areas. They know that even where fresh fruits and vegetables are available they are often quite a bit more expensive than the canned stuff. These leaders realize that farmer’s markets cannot only bring higher quality produce to their communities at a lower price, but they can also bring a change in lifestyle that can perpetuate itself.
Plans for the future include cooking classes in which children and adults are instructed in the preparation and benefits of fresh foods, the planting of fruit trees and vegetables on plots of land at schools sites and other community areas, and a daily regimen of dancing or other physical activities for adults and children. Not only is exercise important for keeping one’s weight in check, it is also pivotal in burning off stress and otherwise optimizing mental health.
More long-range projects include efforts to encourage employers to offer healthy foods at their meetings and events, and for employers to encourage their employees to take physical activity breaks by using stairs instead of elevators, and providing employee walking paths, tracks, pedometers, bike racks, lockers and shower facilities. In addition, efforts are being made to encourage school districts to require high school students to take a semester of health education as a condition for their graduation. Those classes would provide information about nutrition, mental health and the effects of all mind-altering, sometimes addicting drugs, including tobacco, alcohol and caffeine in addition to the illicit substances.
Just after World War II, our country by average had the tallest people in the world. But by the time the baby boomers reached adulthood in the 1960s, most northern and western European countries had caught up with and even surpassed us. Today people in the Netherlands stand almost two inches taller than the average American. The reason for this disparity in height is not per capita income. People in the Czech Republic are taller than Americans, and their income is barely half of ours. Instead the reason for this change is better nutrition in those countries, which in turn promotes taller people and a longer life. American children eat more meals that are prepared outside the home than do the children in these other countries, either from fast food sources or store-bought pre-prepared meals, and the nutritional difference shows.
But with honest education and re-focused direction, people’s habits can change. Part of that change can come from local programs like discussed here, and part of it can come from the government requiring restaurants to post the calorie, trans fat, saturated fat, carbs and sodium content of the food products they sell. Then, knowing how the free market works, some food providers will soon probably start advertising that their meals are more nutritious than that of their competitors, and good things would begin to happen.
So change can happen, and, like with everything else, it begins here at home. For example, when we began our OC in Motion breakfast meetings we served coffee cakes and do-nuts. But now we serve yogurt, granola, melons and berries. Today many public-spirited people here in Orange County are pursuing that change as well. But now we need you. Can we conquer the ongoing epidemic of childhood and adult obesity? I believe we can if keep in mind the thought of Henry Ford who said: “Whether you believe you can, or believe you can’t, you’re right.”
James P. Gray is a Judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and the composer of the high school musical “Americans All,” and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or by visiting his blog at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.