From first lady Michelle Obama boogying on a school field to chef Jamie Oliver taking on cities in 2010 and 2011’s Food Revolution TV program,we encounter the phrase “childhoodobesity” so often that it rarely makes a conscious dent. Statistics tell the sorry tale: Since the 1980s the number of obese children in America has tripled, and it affects 17 percent of all U.S. adolescents.
Almost one in three kids are overweight or obese, placing them at a significantly greater risk for heart disease, asthma, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes, as well as psychological issues including low self-esteem and depression. Given youth culture’s current trifecta of physical inactivity, prolific calorie- and sugarpacked snacks, and an average four-plus hours screen time per day (which include abundant, targeted junk-food ads), fighting childhood obesity may seem like an impossible task. But, incredibly, the tides may be turning.
Researchers from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently noticed that between 2006 and 2011, the number of overweight and obese children in two major cities decreased: Philadelphia’s levels dipped by 4.7 percent and New York City’s dropped 5.5 percent. After obesity’s decades-long upward trajectory, these small but significant victories triggered cautious hope among health experts. Why are rates dropping? What’s working in this massive national health challenge? And where should we focus future efforts? Here, three inspiring influencers tackling obesity in their communities offer wisdom and predictions.
Kids at home
Demographic experts blame the lack of affordable, wholesome foods in poorer regions of the country, a phenomenon labeled “food deserts,” for the modern reality that kids in low-income families are at greater risk for obesity. In some regions (the USDA has a comprehensive food desert locator at usda.gov), convenience stores selling high-fat frozen dinners and sugar-bomb snacks are the only places to buy food—and if fresh fruits and vegetables are available, they’re more expensive than the junk. According to a 2010 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, $1 could buy 1,200 calories worth of potato chips, but just 170 calories of fresh fruit. When you’re a ravenous kid, those chips become a devil’s bargain.
As of 2012, more than 46 million Americans benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Enrollment is up 60 percent since 2008. Even more sobering: Half of all SNAP recipients are children, according to a 2012 report conducted by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Unquestionably, optimizing the way families use SNAP is vital to reducing childhood obesity.
“It’s not that kids don’t like eating fruits and vegetables,” says Allison Sosna, founder of MicroGreens, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit after-school program that teaches children and teens how to cook low-cost meals. “The problem occurs when the adult who’s at home doesn’t know how to budget or how to cook properly. It’s especially hard when folks who are given a monthly allotment, like those on SNAP, aren’t knowledgeable. My goal is to answer: This is what money you have, how do you use it the best?”
After partnering with schools, MicroGreens hosts eight-week cooking classes to transform the way kids regard food—empowering them to shop for and prepare nourishing dishes that can feed four people, such as Herb Chicken Soup and Italian Pork Ragout. The kicker? The ingredients for each family-sized meal cost around $3.50 in total.
During MicroGreen’s 2012 pilot program, Sosna and her team analyzed the number of times the enrolled children and teens cooked at home and went shopping with their parents. They found that both activities increased—and that gets Sosna excited. “Purchasing and eating with family are two major statistical guiding answers that we’re focusing on,” she explains. “Rather than measuring if kids are eating more fruits and vegetables, we’re measuring changes in culture—and that’s what this country really needs. We all have to shift priorities and understand that we need to put their and our health first.”
Kids in gardens
Many variables contribute to childhood obesity, but some health advocates believe the epidemic starts with food disconnect. Though the number of U.S. farmers’ markets swelled from 1,755 to 7,175 between 1994 and 2011, most children still lack a deep, strong relationship to healthy food and where it comes from, says Bryce Brown, founder of the Growe Foundation, a Colorado nonprofit that implements experiential learning programs in schools. When nurtured, “that [food] relationship cultivates a connection such that kids want to eat the fruits and vegetables that they grow, and health benefits follow.”
There’s no doubt that getting their hands dirty prompts kids to eat more healthy foods. In one study, scientists found that grade-school children enrolled in a nutrition education and gardening program were more likely to choose and eat vegetables in the lunchroom than those who just attended nutrition class. Plus, an analysis of the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley, California, revealed that participating students increased vegetable eating by nearly a serving per day, had positive attitudes about food and the environment, and ate family dinner more often—all of which correlate to healthy weight.
Although school gardens demonstrably improve kids’ eating habits, Brown believes it’s not enough just to slap a garden next to a school. The Growe Foundation’s unique approach combines classroom curricula with digging and harvesting. “We want to provide teachers an opportunity to teach children how to learn through food,” says Brown. “Integrating gardens into each school’s curriculum also is a way to gain the support of the principal and the parents.” For example, first graders plant lettuce seeds as part of a life science lesson, while fifth graders study water cycles and the greenhouse effect as part of their standard science studies.
Growe Foundation consciously and closely ties its measures to school standards, which allows gardens to take a central role in learning, critical thinking, and problem solving. “We look at how communities can invest in the future well-being of their most precious asset: their children,” says Brown. “That means teaching kids how to live both healthy and sustainable lives.”
Kids after school
Local nonprofits certainly make a difference, but citywide health initiatives are also a key part of the solution. Along with New York City (which attempted to ban soda containers larger than 16 ounces; a judge overturned the ban in March), Philadelphia is driving the movement against childhood obesity with robust, well-planned measures that are actually working. In a span of four years, childhood obesity rates in Philadelphia fell 4.7 percent, whereas national obesity levels have held steady since 2007. The greatest gains—or, rather, losses—occurred in Philly’s African American boys and Hispanic girls, two demographic groups prone to excess weight.
“I’m a firm believer that if you’re really going to have a childhood obesity initiative, you have to focus on intersecting points wherever the child is: at home, at school, in the community, on the weekends, in places of worship,” says Vanessa Briggs, executive director of Philadelphia’s Health Promotion Council (HPC). “When we were organizing a community action plan to address childhood obesity, I felt there was a gap—all of the strategies were during school. No one was thinking about after-school programs,” even though research shows that junk-food snacking peaks after school.
Consequently, Briggs spearheaded healthy-living guidelines that after-school providers could readily implement, such as ensuring fresh water is always available, banning sugary drinks and outside snacks, and promoting a positive mealtime atmosphere. To gain buy-in, she first launched a pilot program with nine after-school providers in different locations. “These guidelines regulate and sustain healthier afterschool programs and institutionalize goals across the board for all providers,” she says.
HPC’s success hinges on collaboration with other Philadelphia associations. For example, in concert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health launched the Healthy Corner Store initiative aimed at replacing some of the junk food typically sold in 600 urban convenience stores with healthier, fresher alternatives. More than 80 percent of participating stores introduced four or more healthy-alternative products to their shelves, including fruits or vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains.
Even the University of Pennsylvania got involved with HPC; using geographical imaging, the college located areas conducive to physical activity, such as parks and recreation centers, and identified food deserts near after-school sites, says Briggs.
All across the country, smart, passionate people like Sosna, Brown, and Briggs are using their talents and dedication to address childhood obesity. Although their approaches differ, they all agree with the old adage “It takes a village.” When a whole community gets involved—nonprofits, businesses, schools, neighbors, parents, restaurants, local media—the collective influence can authentically shift how kids and teens think about and eat food, and how often they exercise.
The recent progress against the obesity epidemic is slight, and the end is likely a longway off. But these tangible improvements may be harbingers of more good to come.
As family dinners, school lunches, and snack times continue to improve, many experts insist that championing physical activity is the next major step in anti-obesity efforts. “It’s both food and fitness,” says Briggs. “Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is a great national initiative, but we need that to translate down to the local community. We should continuously ask: How do schools get recess back? What kind of policies will make that happen? Then I think we’ll have the best of both worlds.”