Taking Childhood Obesity to Task

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Here's a statistic to ponder: One in three American kids weighs more than is healthy, as measured by body mass index. Nearly 20 percent are downright obese; barreling toward an adult life of serious health complications like diabetes and heart disease.

Here's another one: A mere 30 years ago, the nation's childhood obesity rate was a much more reasonable 5 percent. So, theoretically, we could get back there in another 30 years, right? Or even...20 years?

That's what the current administration hopes, as reflected in the action plan unveiled by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity at a press conference this morning, setting a goal of reducing the childhood obesity rate to five percent by 2030.

"We know we have the tools, we know we have the resources to make this happen, and now we have a road map," Michelle Obama declared, adding that all we need now is "the willpower to do what needs to be done."

President Obama convened the childhood obesity task force three months ago, in conjunction with the Let's Move! initiative launched by the First Lady. It involves the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Education—all represented at the press conference—as well as nine other federal agencies.

The plan rests on five main pillars: improving early childhood care, empowering parents and caregivers with information, making schools healthier, increasing children's physical activity and eliminating food deserts. (No, not desserts, although it would probably help to cut back on those, too. Food desert is the term applied to areas where residents have little or no access to healthy, affordable groceries, although there may be plenty of fast-food joints around.)

Childhood obesity is a government priority because it has implications for public health, the economy, and even military readiness, as the report points out:

Each year, obese adults incur an estimated $1,429 more in medical expenses than their normal-weight peers. Overall, medical spending on adults that was attributed to obesity topped approximately $40 billion in 1998, and by 2008, increased to an estimated $147 billion. Excess weight is also costly during childhood, estimated at $3 billion per year in direct medical costs...More than one quarter of all Americans ages 17-24 are unqualified for military service because they are too heavy.

The report includes 70 specific recommendations for action, ranging from a child's earliest days (more prenatal care and support for breastfeeding mothers; less "screen time" for kids) to their years in the school system (more nutritious school meals, more funding for school breakfast and lunch programs, more participation in daily physical education). Reducing kids' exposure to junk food is also part of the plan, and although the report does not propose a federal tax on such foods, one recommendation is to "analyze the effect of state and local sales taxes on less healthy, energy-dense foods."

But at the same time, Michelle Obama was careful to emphasize that government can only be part of the solution. Parents, caregivers, educators, community organizations and businesses all play varying roles in the messages and opportunities that reach children.

"Nobody thinks that having the federal government tell people what to do is going to solve this," she said. "We need everyone to do their part—and it’s going to take everyone. No one gets off the hook.”

The full 124-page report, titled "Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation," is available here.

What do you think—is it a realistic goal? Do you agree or disagree with any of the task force's recommendations in particular?

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