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Childhood obesity is not only common for U.S. children, it’s a global epidemic.
How can communities address this issue?
A new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), Meeting the Moment: Learning From Leaders at the Forefront of Change, asked community leaders and researchers to share their experiences in hopes of better understanding and preventing childhood obesity.
“It is you who get out there every day and innovate, renovate, and motivate the field to keep going, keep trying, keep striving,” said Jamie Bussel, senior program officer for the RWJF.
Let’s explore four key areas community leaders can eliminate childhood obesity!
1. Improve Health Data
Accurate health data is important.
For instance, we know Latino adults have higher obesity rates than their white peers (47% and 37.9%), as do Latino children (20.7% and 11.7%).
The RWJF report criticizes the measurement called Body Mass Index (BMI).
BMI is an “overly simplistic ratio” and “not a consistently useful or accurate measure of health,” according to Ted Fischer, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Anthropology at the Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science, and Tatiana Paz Lemus, program manager for the Vanderbilt Cultural Contexts of Health and Wellbeing Initiative.
The report goes on to further highlight the limitations of using BMI, including:
- BMI is a measure of body size; it is not a measure of health.
- BMI measures weight; it doesn’t measure body fat.
- Standards for BMI are based on Western ideals and European body types.
- BMI can contribute to anti-fat bias and stigma.
“This recognition has led many to begin to consider what other measures might be used or even whether tracking obesity rates in this way is useful at all,” according to the report.
Other factors can better assess the health of a community.
These include nutritional adequacy, upstream factors affecting food supply, nutritional assistance, and indicators of food quality and availability on every child’s health and wellbeing must be considered, according to the report.
“The body mass index (BMI) measurement is simply that—a measure of body size—but it is not a comprehensive measurement of health,” the report said.
2. Create Communities of Opportunity
The RWJF report makes a point that obesity is a “key symptom of community conditions and systemic inequities,” rather than just a health outcome.
With many making health choices based on their circumstances, the report highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic played a large role in people’s health choices and access through disruptions in everyday life, such as healthcare, employment, and food among others.
“Efforts for preventing childhood obesity must center on equity and address these systemic challenges—the social, economic, and physical factors that harm our health, including the long-standing structural racism that exists across all the systems that circumscribe our lives,” according to the report.
Recognizing racism as a public health crisis is a first step toward action.
Another step is seeing food as a “basic human right,” according to Dr. Amy Trubek, professor and chair for the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, and Rebecca Mitchell, food systems research and action coordinator for the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont.
“Food is a basic human right: we all need it to survive and thrive,” according to the report. “When we begin shaping policies with this in mind, we’ll start to see meaningful progress toward a food system that not only promotes healthy foods and economic inclusion for farmers, but also benefits entire communities and future generations.”
Trubek and Mitchell also offered questions to ask regarding where we get food, including:
- How can we level the playing field for small farmers?
- What are the untapped markets for local farmers?
- Sugar, corn, and soybeans are all subsidized—what if we did the same for fruits and vegetables?
- What if we reframed the conversation about healthy foods to more explicitly include frozen produce?
“Questions like these help us reconsider what’s driving decisions about what food we grow, how we grow it, and why we are growing it in the first place: is it for nutrition or profit? And by thinking through these questions, we can work toward policy solutions that support our kids, our families, and our economy,” they wrote.
3. Build Equitable Food Systems
Many low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities, including Latinos, have less access to and affordability of nutritious foods.
“Our food and nutrition policies are failing children at every level—fueling epidemics of hunger and chronic disease, and even destroying the earth from which our food is grown and cultivated,” according to the RWJF report.
Supporting leaders of color, empowering communities, and addressing the effects of climate change can transform policies and systems to achieve access to healthy, affordable foods and creating sustainable food systems, according to the report.
“When we invest in redistributing the power and decision-making capacity in our food systems, we invest in health equity,” Rivera said.
“Shifting the power structure at every level to create space and decision-making power for those who have been harmed, excluded, or marginalized by our current food systems can only create stronger, more equitable, and more sustainable communities—now, and in the years to come.”
4. Advance Priority Policies
The RWJF report emphasizes the importance of policies and programs that contribute to the needs and health of children and families.
This includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program.
“We must maximize every opportunity to ensure that these policies and programs put the needs and health of children and families at the forefront,” according to the report. “If we do, these policies and programs have the potential to improve access to healthy foods for all families, help prevent obesity, and transform our food ecosystem into one that advances equity.”
The report also lists recommendations related to each program to increase access, including:
- Broaden SNAP eligibility to cover more college students, unemployed adults without children, and lawfully residing immigrants.
- Provide resources necessary for all states to implement WIC Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and expand online purchasing options.
- Make healthy school meals for all children permanent.
Go here to see the full Meeting the Moment: Learning From Leaders at the Forefront of Change report and more information on the State of Childhood Obesity.
How Can You Advocate for Change?
Proposed changes include:
- Enhanced buying power for fruits, vegetables.
- Increased foods consumed less in adequacy, amount.
- More options for cultural eating patterns.
- Ability to get the quantity of formula to support any level of breastfeeding.
- Requiring all breakfast cereals to meet the whole grain-rich standards that already apply to school nutrition programs and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
Salud America! partnered with UnidosUS to create a model comment you can use to support the new WIC changes, which can improve nutrition among Latino families.
Submit a comment by Feb. 23, 2023!
“WIC remains one of the nation’s most successful, cost-effective public health nutrition programs. WIC participants, including those who are Hispanic/Latino, are more likely to have a more nutritious diet and better health outcomes, with participation tied to fewer infant deaths, fewer premature births, increased birth weights, and lower health care costs, according to research,” said Dr. Amelie Ramirez, Director of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.