How Do We Address Childhood Obesity? The Answer Is Simple!

by EMILY REICHMAN

We are all familiar with the grave statistics about current childhood obesity trends. One in three children is overweight or obese. Children born after the year 2000 have a one in three chance of developing type 2 diabetes. This number is even higher for children in minority groups; one in two. Here is the good news, we already know how to fix the problem and it is simple! Step one, children need enough physical activity. Step two; eat healthy, fresh food in place of processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. So why does the problem seem so unwieldy and impossible to tackle? Why is it so challenging to make healthy choices when choosing the foods we eat?

It is the way in which our food choices are structured for us. For example, a child living in an urban neighborhood is likely to see an array of fast food restaurants and perhaps a grocery store a half a mile away. Where is that child more likely to eat? The child is set up for failure before even getting out of the house.

To make it even more challenging, the food industry has become experts at marketing to young people. Children are inundated constantly with advertisements for unhealthy foods. From seeing their favorite celebrity drinking soda on TV, to the cartoon character they love to watch every Saturday on the newest box of sugary breakfast cereal. Do you remember the last time you saw an advertisement for spinach or apples with a celebrity endorsement? Probably not. Our food environment has become toxic. How then, can we change our food environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice? We need to increase the availability of healthy food options and make the unhealthy options less abundant.

Local governments across the country have already made big strides to address healthy food access and can provide a venue to test approaches that can be scaled to the state or federal level. State government can play a role in supporting local initiatives by setting up an incentive structure to entice local government to zone their town or city specifically for healthy food establishments.   This could range from grocery stores, farmers markets, or community gardens. Municipalities that follow state specified zoning stipulations will receive money from the federal government through the Healthy Food Financing Initiative to entice healthy food retailers to locate in a specific area and receive additional funding from the state for public works projects. Everybody wins! In addition, a state-wide nutrition education campaign will provide children with the tools they need to make healthy decisions about their food. This model, if successful, will provide a blueprint for other states to adopt. It will generate local jobs, enhance the aesthetic appeal of the area, and create a healthier community.

This approach will only create change in one state to start. How can we make sweeping changes and hold the food industry accountable for their part in the epidemic? Children see up to 40,000 advertisements a year, the vast majority of which are for soda, candy, or sugary cereal. A lawsuit based on a violation of consumer protection laws can be successful because children are not able to make critical assessments of advertisements and distinguish the health merits of promoted food. They should not be subjected to the marketing of products that are inherently unhealthy. Even the threat of litigation, an onslaught of lawsuits, and increased government regulations might encourage the food industry to better self-regulate and voluntarily change their marketing tactics towards children. It will also reframe the issue in the court of public opinion, moving the blame for obesity from individual behavior to the food industry and food environment.

Local governments in conjunction with the work of non-profits will continue to generate new solutions to the childhood obesity epidemic with support from the state and federal government. Mandating the availability of healthy food in our communities and monitoring the way in which unhealthy food is promoted will make it easier for children to make the right decision about what foods they eat. The ultimate goal is to make the healthy option, the easy option. These policy solutions will do that and create a nurturing environment for children to grow.

Emily Reichman is a 2014 graduate of the MS Program in Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. The views expressed are hers alone.

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