The Issue

Over the past few decades, changes to our communities, neighborhoods and schools have made it difficult for children to eat a healthy diet and be active. Today, many families don't have access to affordable healthy foods or safe places for their kids to walk, bike and play. And in schools across the country, junk food and sugary drinks are widely available, while physical education has been squeezed our of the curriculum.

These changes have made a significant impact on our nation's health, and contributed to the epidemic of childhood obesity. Obesity rates have increased dramatically among all age groups since 1970, more than quadrupling among children ages 6 to 11. Today, more than 23 million children and teens in the United States-nearly one in three young people-are overweight or obese. Lower-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by the epidemic.

Why It Matters

  • Childhood obesity threatens the health of our young people now and their future potential. Compared with their healthy-weight peers, youths who are obese are at higher risk for serious health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and asthma. They also miss more school, have greater psychological stress and are more likely to be obese as adults. If we don't reverse this epidemic, the current generation of young people could be the first in U.S. history to live sicker and die younger than their parents' generation.
  • Preventing childhood obesity is critical to protecting the viability of our health care system. Childhood obesity is a risk factor for many costly chronic diseases that put a tremendous strain on our health care system. It's estimated that the obesity epidemic costs our nation $117 billion per year in direct medical expenses and indirect costs, including lost productivity.

Policy Context

Public policies play a major role in creating environments that support healthy kids and healthy living. Stories from communities and schools across the country show us—and research confirms—that creating healthier environments leads to healthier behaviors. For example, when communities have supermarkets that sell healthy affordable foods, families eat more nutritiously. Policies that require schools to offer only healthy foods and beverages in their cafeteria and vending machines help improve children's diets. Children are more active when their neighborhoods have safe streets, sidewalks and parks and their schools have strong physical education programs.

Building on these examples, policymakers at all levels are pursuing a range of strategies to curb childhood obesity. Congress recently passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which aims to make sure healthier foods and beverages are served and sold in schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued proposed nutrition standards for school meals and is expected to follow with proposals for foods and beverages sold in a la carte lines, school stores and vending machines. Over the last two years, state policymakers have increased their efforts to improve physical activity and physical education in schools, and ensure the impacts of those efforts are assessed.

Policy-makers also are exploring ways to improve access to healthy foods in all communities, limit the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, and determine how food and beverage prices can best support a healthy diet.

Childhood Obesity Fast Facts

The Rise in Childhood Obesity Rates

Among preschool children ages 2 to 5, the rate of obesity increased from 5 percent to 10.4 percent between 1976–1980 and 2007–2008. Obesity rates also increased dramatically among  6- to 11-year-olds (from 4.2% to 19.6% between 1963–1965 and 2007–2008) and among 12- to 19-year-olds (from 4.6% to 18.1% between 1966–1970 and 2007–2008).

Source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Read more

Junk Food in Schools

Students in the United States consume almost 400 billion calories from junk food sold at school each year.

Source: Mission: Readiness

Read more