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Child Obesity: The Obama Administration’s Way Forward



May 11th, 2010
by Chris Fleming

The White House’s Task Force on Childhood Obesity, headed by First Lady Michelle Obama, today released recommendations to the President designed to lower the child obesity rate from about 20 percent now to 5 percent in 2030. 

Currently, one out of three children is overweight or obese, the Task Force report points out. Child obesity is significantly correlated with adult obesity, and obese adults incur $1,429 more in annual medical spending than their nonobese counterparts.  Obesity is estimated to cause 112,000 deaths per year in the United States.

Among the topics considered in the report is the importance of the “built environment,” such as neighborhoods where children feel safe enough to go outside and have access to sidewalks, playgrounds, and other amenities that encourage physicial activity. The report highlights a study published in Health Affairs authored by Gopal Singh, a senior epidemiologist at the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, and colleagues.

Singh’s study appeared in the March issue of Health Affairs, a thematic volume on child obesity funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Singh and other authors from the issue discussed their findings at a National Press Club briefing. A set of Policy Briefs summarizing the findings of articles in the issue and presenting recommendations advanced by the authors is also available.

As described in the Task Force Report, Singh and his colleagues found that children living in unsafe neighborhoods or those characterized by poor housing and the presence of litter had an approximately 30-60 percent greater chance of being obese or overweight than children living in better conditions. Children with low neighborhood amenities or those lacking neighborhood access to sidewalks or walking paths, parks or playgrounds, or recreation or community centers were 20 to 45 percent more likely to be obese or overweight. The impact of the built environment was particularly strong for younger children (ages 10-11) and for girls. Girls ages 10-11 living in neighborhoods with the fewest amenities had 121 percent and 276 percent higher adjusted odds of being overweight or obese, respectively, than young girls living in neighborhoods with the most amenities.

Many other topics discussed in the Task Force report were also examined in the Health Affairs issue, “Child Obesity: The Way Forward.” For example, a key focus of the Task Force report is providing healthy food in schools, a subject discussed by Health Affairs authors Nicole Larsen and Mary Story, among others. The Task Force report also stresses the importance of eliminating “food deserts,” areas where residents lack access to affordable healthy food. In the March Health Affairs volume, Allison Karpyn and coauthors described a statewide initiative in Pennsylvania that to date has funded seventy-eight fresh food outlets in the state, increasing food access for 500,000 children and adults. The initiative was sparked by the Food Trust, a Philadelphi nonprofit organization where Karpyn serves as Director of Research and Evaluation.

For information on another state’s efforts to fight child obesity, see the PBS NewsHour’s reports on Mississippi here and here.

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