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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Now this just might be a worthy effort at combatting childhood obesity
Posted by Jill | 7:13 AM
I'd like to see more information on this, but a program to increase the availability of fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods is to be applauded:

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation plans to spend more than $500 million over the next five years to reverse the increase in childhood obesity. It is one of the largest public health initiatives ever tried by a private philanthropy.

The foundation estimates that roughly 25 million children 17 and under are obese or overweight, nearly a third of the 74 million in that age group, according to Census Bureau data and a 2006 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Many of those children are poor and live in neighborhoods where outdoor play is unsafe and access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited. “In many cases, the environment makes it almost impossible for them to choose healthy lifestyles,” Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey said. “We’re going to try to change that.”

The foundation plans to invest in programs to improve access to healthy food, encourage the development of safe play spaces, increase research to enhance understanding of obesity and prod governments into adopting policies to address the problem, among other things.

One reason why the consumption of fast food is so prevalent in low-income neighborhoods is that fast food is what is available. These neighborhoods don't have supermarkets or farmer's markets or even the kind of Asian produce markets I see in my area, where beautiful produce is available for sometimes ridiculously low prices. The produce they have is often aging, wilted, and bruised. Just having fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables available for purchase will help people in low-income neighborhoods increase their consumption of healthier foods. But availability is only half the problem; the other half is time. With low-income adults often working two and three jobs just to keep a roof over their heads, and kids left to themselves, the siren song of fast food is still the path of least resistance. But at least it's a start.

Another disturbing trend recently has been the elimination of recess from the public schools. I don't share the linked article's enthusiasm for dodge ball, which in my memory was just was the school sanctioning bullying against kids like me, but I was actually pretty proficient at hopscotch. The article puts the responsibility of programs like No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on testing, but I think it's as much attributable to this new notion that if a kid doesn't go through childhood without ever getting so much as a bruise, it means his parents are neglectful.

I see kids in my neighborhood in what looks like full body armor before they can even get on a bicycle. I agree that helmets are important; I know someone who lost a child after he was hit by a car on his bicycle and wasn't wearing a helmet. But I'm not sure that knee pads and elbow pads are really necessary. Most parents I've spoken to have said that their greatest concern if their kids get hurt is that the school will report it as abuse.

I'm not sure that increasing physical education requirements in schools is going to accomplish much, however, unless those requirements involve choices that students can make with their parents, rather than a one size fits all curriculum. There are always going to be kids who aren't athletic, who are afraid of heights, or for whatever reason just aren't going to be able to succeed at the conventional phys. ed. curriculum of rope climbing, gymnastics, team sports, and the like. As someone who fights a tendency to be sedentary every day of my life because I learned very on in phys. ed. class -- "Can't win, don't try", I wonder how much more willing I would have been to get outside and move if I hadn't spent much of my outdoor time in school being yelled at by teachers because I was afraid of being hit by a ball in dodge ball, unable to gauge where a softball was going to fall, afraid to jump from one uneven parallel bar to the next, and with a fear of heights and without the arm strength to climb a rope to the ceiling. But if schools can offer an array of activities so that any child can find something he or she can do, that's an increase in physical education that I can support.

However, I would hate to see well-intentioned efforts to combat childhood obesity devolve into yet more obsession with thinness and more eating disorders as a result of such well-intentioned efforts. As I've posted before, kids are going to have many different body types. Because schools are oriented towards fitting everyone into the same box, it's important that efforts to get kids eating foods that are good for them instead of just cheap, fast, and filling is geared towards keepting them healthy, rather than expecting them to all be able to wear a designated size.


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