Sunday, September 17, 2006

Combating Childhood Obesity: Dismantling Success?

With childhood obesity on the increase, have policy-makers in Washington made the right decision cutting a government program that some say was working?
Ride a bike or hop on a skateboard. Any physical activity is cool — and a plus in the fight against childhood obesity.

That was the straightforward message from an expensive and heavily promoted federal program that claimed it led to a 30 percent increase in exercise among the pre-teenagers it reached.

Despite the apparent success, the Bush administration killed the program this year through budget cuts. That was a shortsighted decision in the view of an organization that advises the government on health matters.

The demise of the program, known as VERB, [Ed's note: website here.] "calls into question the commitment to obesity prevention within government," an Institute of Medicine expert panel reported Wednesday.

Dr. Jeffrey Koplan of Emory University, who led the panel, was more blunt, saying it was a waste of public money to develop a program that works and then to dismantle it.

One in five children is predicted to be obese by 2010. Efforts to turn that tide are scattershot, given too few dollars and lacking the national leadership needed to speed real change, the report found. No one knows how many of these programs to trim kids' growing waistlines actually work, the panel said.

"Is this as important as stockpiling antibiotics or buying vaccines? I think it is," Koplan said. "This is a major health problem. It's of a different nature than acute infectious threats, but it needs to be taken just as seriously."

To reinforce that point, the report spotlighted VERB, a campaign by the federal Centers for Disease Control that encouraged 9- to 13-year-olds to participate in physical activities. Slick ads, at a cost of $59 million last year, portrayed exercise as cool at an age when outdoor play typically winds down and adolescent slothfulness sets in.

A CDC spokesman, Jeff McKenna, said the agency is "trying to do everything we can to package the research and lessons learned from VERB so it can inform campaigns local groups might take on throughout the country."

The report cites other examples of promising federal programs that have not reached their potential:

_Kids gobbled fruits and vegetables in an Agriculture Department school snack program. But it only reaches 14 states.

_The CDC's main anti-obesity initiative had enough money this year to fund just 28 states starting childhood nutrition and exercise programs.

The report did praise some state and local efforts for their creativity. Examples include:

_A California program, begun in Marin County, to build new sidewalks and bike paths. They are getting more children to walk or bike to school.

_A community garden project in New York City's Harlem section to increase inner-city youngsters' access to healthful food and safe recreation.

_An effort by Arkansas schools to notify parents when students are overweight. Combined with new school menus and physical activity programs, the initiative recently reported a leveling off of the state's child obesity rate.

In 2004, the institute recommended that parents, schools, communities, the food industry and government work together in taking on childhood obesity. Wednesday's report was the first assessment.

"We still are not doing enough to prevent childhood obesity, and the problem is getting worse," said Koplan, a former CDC director. "The current level of public and private sector investments does not match the extent of the problem."

More than individual programs, full-scale social change is needed to make healthful eating and physical activity the norm, said one member of the expert panel, Toni Yancey of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Some 17 percent of U.S. youngsters already are obese, and millions more are overweight. Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, sleep problems and other disorders.

The report shows "what the country is doing is like putting a Band-Aid on a brain tumor," said Margo Wootan of the consumer advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The institute is part of the National Academy of Sciences, a private organization chartered by Congress to advise the government of scientific matters.
As a currently practicing classroom teacher in California, I've noticed over the years that more and more students are packing on more weight at younger ages.

Beginning this year, any type of food that the school provides to students (even those treats that are given as treats to kids in the classroom) must meet stringent new government guidelines.

I guess this is a step forward.

But I wonder how much of this increasing level of childhood obesity is due to school food and how much is due to parents who all-too-often furnish their kids "junk" and "fast" food because they either don't have the time or inclination to prepare nutritionally balanced meals for their offspring?
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