Closing the Gap on Child Obesity

May 22, 2014, 9:56 AM, Posted by

An elementary school student takes plastic cutlery for his school meal.

Imagine a splashy, big bucks television commercial selling kids on the tantalizing deliciousness of eating ... carrots.          

Or a new course sandwiched into already packed middle-school and high school curricula: “Food Shopping and Cooking for a Healthy Life.”

Sound implausible? Maybe—but then again, such innovations could be a part of what is needed to make more progress in the war on child obesity.

These were some of the suggestions that emerged from a recent conference in Newark, where the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Grantmakers in Health sponsored a day-long summit entitled Closing the Gap: Childhood Obesity (and in which I was a participant). You can watch a video of the meeting here.

As RWJF CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey reminded the audience, the Foundation has set a goal of reversing the U.S. child obesity epidemic by 2015—and as that date approaches, she confessed, “I’m getting a little nervous.” (View Risa's remarks.)

Although there have been declines in obesity among some of America’s youngest children—specifically, 2 to 5—the overall obesity rate in Americans ages 2 to 19 hasn’t changed much in a decade. There are also significant racial and ethnic disparities: As of 2011-2012, obesity prevalence was higher among Hispanics (22.4 percent) and non-Hispanic black youth (20.2 percent) than non-Hispanic white youth (14.1 percent) or Asians (8.6 percent).

Lavizzo-Mourey noted progress in reducing these disparities in cities like Philadelphia, but acknowledged such gains were “fragile” and could easily be reversed. And overall, conference participants agreed that more headway must be made in each of the six obesity-fighting strategies embraced by RWJF:

  • Improving the nutritional quality of snack foods and beverages in schools;
  • Increasing access to parks, playgrounds, and other opportunities to be physically active;
  • Increasing access to healthy affordable foods in communities;
  • Helping schools and youth-serving organizations increase activity for kids;
  • Reducing consumption of sugary beverages;
  • Protecting children from marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks.

A question that underpinned much of the discussion at the conference was how much headway could be made via voluntary actions, and how much would have to be driven by new standards, regulations or other government action. Consider some of what’s been accomplished in recent years, through a mix of all of these measures:            

  • An estimated 90 percent of US schools have implemented new federal school meal nutrition standards—and First Lady Michelle Obama is among those who’ve vowed to fight ongoing efforts to roll those standards back.
  • Beverage producers have adopted new national guidelines that removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools—one reason that the nation as a whole now consumes 25 percent less in sugary drinks than 15 years ago, noted Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But how to move to the next level, and make healthy food—and reasonably-sized portions—so popular that they become the obvious or “default” choice for kids, whether they’re in school or not?  Ideas for voluntary initiatives abounded. “We can start marketing [healthy foods for kids] in a way that is active and fun,” said Sam Kass, executive director of Let’s Move, the campaign launched by the First Lady to end U.S. child obesity within a generation. Similarly, the beverage industry could voluntarily stop advertising sodas that are not sugar-free, as Coca-Cola has already done in Britain.

But will voluntary action be enough? Jacobson pointed out that America’s food industry fought off voluntary guidelines proposed by the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 to reduce junk food advertising aimed at kids. The guidelines would have prompted food manufacturers and restaurant companies to make their products healthier, or stop advertising them to children and teenagers across a variety of platforms, from television to social media.

Although food manufacturers and fast food chains have taken steps to make food healthier, it is unclear how much more progress will come without tougher federal action, Jacobson said. Meanwhile, others made a plea for more cross-sector, voluntary collaboration. “We believe child obesity is a real crisis in this country,” said Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association. “Thinking outside the box is to bring industry to the table. We can get further faster if you have us there working with you.”

As the countdown to 2015 continues, there’s plenty of work to be done.