Public Health Crisis #1: Childhood Obesity

The obesity epidemic has been making headlines across the nation and has captured the attention of California policymakers in recent legislative sessions. The percentage of children and adolescents who are overweight has more than doubled in the past 30 years, according to the California Department of Health Services (CDHS), and nearly one-third of California children were overweight or at risk for being overweight.

While the headlines focus on weight and body size, the fundamental issue is the poor eating habits and activities of which obesity is a symptom. California children are establishing unhealthy patterns that are likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives. Only 30 percent of California adolescents met the goal of five servings a day for fruit and vegetable consumption and 68 percent of adolescents ate two or more high fat, low nutrient foods a day, according to a 2000 survey conducted by CDHS. An astonishing 80 percent of tested children failed to meet fitness standards administered by California schools in 1999.

Poor eating and a sedentary lifestyle are linked to a host of health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. These are occurring at ever-younger ages and disproportionately affect African-Americans, Latinos, Native-Americans, and poor people. An estimated 14 percent of premature deaths could be prevented through improved eating habits and more frequent physical activity, according to a 1999 CDHS report. This translates to 35,000 lives a year and $15 billion in related health care costs.

Public education has proven woefully inadequate in promoting healthy behaviors. Adults and children are the target of intensive marketing campaigns promoting super-sized sodas, fast foods, and high-calorie snacks. The automobile and passive leisure-time activities including television, movies, and video games keep Californians off their feet. Unhealthy foods and pastimes are often more readily available in schools and communities than healthy eating options and walking, biking, or other exercise opportunities. This is particularly true in neighborhoods where the majority of residents live near or below the poverty line.

The Strategic Alliance to Prevent Childhood Obesity was founded to reframe the debate about obesity, poor eating and physical inactivity from a matter of individual choice and lifestyle to an issue of the environment, demanding corporate and government accountability. Schools have opened their doors to soft drink and fast food vendors far more often than to local farmers. The federal government subsidizes corn for cheap corn syrup products, rather than promoting sustainable farming. Health care institutions ignore prevention-many hospitals allow the fast food industry to set up shop in their lobbies-and are stuck with treating the end results of food-related diseases.

The Strategic Alliance focused first on reducing access to soda and junk food in schools, and helped pass Senate Bill 19 (Escutia 2001), establishing state nutrient standards for beverages, snacks, and side dishes sold in schools. It has also partnered with community groups to advocate successfully for school district regulations in Oakland and Los Angeles that limit sales of carbonated soda beverages. While many groups work to increase access to fresh food through projects like Farmersí Market Salad Bars, the Strategic Alliance will continue to work the other side of the street, fighting the encroachment of unhealthy products and habits on our public spaces.

-Paul Leung and Leslie Mikkelsen, Strategic Alliance to Prev