Happy Childhood Obesity Awareness Month!
That’s right. $150 billion will be spent this year to discourage childhood obesity and treat the chronic health problems that result from this epidemic. Statistically speaking, there’s no end in sight; the percent of obese children has tripled over the last 30 years. Although measures have started to appear to counter the problem, childhood obesity is a complicated issue and the solution will likely have to manifest itself in multiple arenas.
The cause of childhood obesity is itself multifaceted. Finger-pointing abounds and nearly every imaginable source has received blame. Slothful children, negligent parents, apathetic lunch ladies, nefarious Hamburglars, and even The Gipper have received their share of criticism in government and in the media. Who is really to blame? To find the answer to this question, I needed to consult experts at the 8th Annual Health Disparities Summit – the site of an all-day discussion called Childhood Obesity: A Call to Action.
The summit is a yearly event established jointly by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. The Tri-Caucus, as the three groups are known en masse, consider themselves the “consciousness of congress” and recently scored a major victory when the health care reform bill acknowledged, for the first time in history, that specific diseases (obesity among them) occur disproportionately among minority communities. The University of Southern California was chosen to host the summit, in honor of USC’s commitment to medical research in childhood obesity.
Government, medical, and commercial interests were all represented. Strangely however, it seemed obese persons were excluded from this discussion - apparently skinny people are the experts on what is best for fat people. In fact, aside from a few paunchy middle-aged men, there was no indication that weight problems were an issue for the American people.
Various entities aired their ideas throughout the day. Solutions ranged from the mind-numbingly vague (“Bring awareness to this issue” was established as a goal by Rep. Diane Watson of California’s 33rd District) to the strangely aggressive (one USDA recommendation is to mandate judicial recognition of a woman’s right to breastfeed).
The most colorful strategies, not surprisingly, come from outside of government bureaucracy. Unfortunately, creativity is no guarantee of effectiveness. Consider, for example the two most celebrated crusaders against childhood obesity: first lady Michelle Obama and animated ogre Shrek.
Shrek, who appears in commercials urging youngsters to “get up and play an hour a day” is the reigning spokes-ogre for healthierus.gov. However, I am inclined to doubt Shrek’s commitment to the cause given he has also lent his good name to Skittles, Snickers, Cheetos, McDonald’s, Pop Tarts, Sierra Mist, and Hostess Twinkies – a virtual who’s who of junk food. In addition, Shrek is literally an overweight monster. Isn’t that the kind of physique this whole campaign wants to discourage?
Michelle Obama is the dynamo behind Let’s Move!, a campaign designed to change children’s lifestyles. Let’s Move! certainly has all the right intentions, and if nothing else, has supported local government’s efforts to curb childhood obesity. The first lady even led by example and planted a White House garden to demonstrate the age-old maxim that if you give a man a zucchini he’ll eat for a day and if you teach a man to grow a zucchini, he’ll memorize which pizza parlors offer free delivery. Additionally, Obama partnered with the MLB and NFL, no doubt seeking suitable role models like Prince Fielder and Albert Haynesworth for at-risk youth.
Audrey Rowe, Deputy Administrator of Special Nutrition Programs for the USDA, told summit participants that the health care reform bill was the “single most significant opportunity in the last five years” to make a dent in the childhood obesity epidemic. It didn’t take me long to find realists who attested that government initiatives were largely irrelevant.
“Our products are nutritionally sound,” said Jenna Schiedermayer, who works in marketing services for Dole. According to Schiedermayer, Dole’s commitment to dishing out a healthy product started in-house and predates health care reform. As a leader in school lunch fodder, Dole’s canned fruit and other products are a prime candidate for examination.
“We’re always working to develop healthier versions of our products,” said Schiedermayer. “We want to lead by example.”
“Dole is also a content provider,” said Schiedermayer’s colleague Monica Spiro. Indeed, Dole’s Nutrition Institute produces print and digital literature in English and Spanish that includes nutritional information, diet and exercise suggestions, and descriptions of how their products contribute to a healthy lifestyle. The bulk of the content is aimed at children. None of this is required by government agencies.
“We’ve been doing this for years. It’s part of our DNA,” said Spiro.
So who is to blame? Given that this sort of corporate responsibility has existed in some form prior to the health care reform surge, I think big business is exonerated. The government might be ineffective, but not for lack of trying. Families, particularly low-income families where children are at the greatest risk of becoming obese, are faced with few options. We may never find one party to blame, but correcting childhood obesity will require the collaboration of all involved.
Contact columnist Patrick Bigsby here.