Childhood Obesity: A Top Priority

By Steve Adubato, Ph.D. Wha’s going on in the New Jersey Statehouse these days isn’t a pretty sight. Beyond the battle over reducing property taxes, holding the line on public employee pensions and the never-ending debate regarding who is to blame for what, there is an “under-the-radar” initiative that is a non-debatable a winner. This new initiative, championed by Governor Jon Corzine, takes on a problem that all of us, particularly parents struggling to raise healthy children, must face. The problem is childhood obesity, something too many of us have ignored for too long. The costs to society, particularly these children, is devastating. While there’s no magic bullet or single solution, there is a new program called “Eat Right, Move More,” a joint effort between the New York Jets (who play in New Jersey) and the State of New Jersey to encourage K through 12 students to eat nutritious foods that will now be offered in schools as part of a long overdue new school nutrition program that focuses on healthier eating and increased physical activity. Consider some alarming numbers. It is estimated that more than half of all New Jersey adults are overweight or obese. The “Eat Right, Move More” initiative intends to change the way New Jerseyans”particularly youngsters — think about diet and exercise. According to Kathleen Morgan, who chairs the family and community health program at Rutgers University, “New Jersey has the highest incidence of obesity in low-income two to five year olds in the country … Not surprisingly, less than 40 percent of adults statewide are frequently physically active, and more than two-thirds eat less than five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.” Over 90 percent of our children watch at least an hour of television a day and a overwhelming 22 percent watch four hours or more per day. While watching, most of our kids — including my three sons ages 2, 4 and 14 — often snack on chips, dips, candy, soda or some over processed food that is filled with saturated fats, salt and other bad stuff. Let’s also consider, these statistics are scary enough, but we must also consider the billions of dollars that are spent annually on the health problems associated with obesity including diabetes, liver disease, high blood pressure and heart disease. Researches have estimated that obesity costs society or health insurers about $80 billion a year and growing steadily. And we wonder why taxes continue to skyrocket. Who do you think is paying for this problem? All of us. Obviously, something needs to change, but like I said there is no magic bullet or single answer. It is going to take a consortium or partnership involving key players including parents, educators, lawmakers, children, but also the media that continues to exert tremendous influence on the eating and sedentary habits of kids. It’s not particularly productive to rail against commercial television for promoting unhealthy foods or to blame parents for letting our kids sit in front of a television for hours eating those same foods. Blaming and finger pointing won’t help. When it comes to taking on the multi-faceted problem of childhood obesity, it will take at least a village and maybe more. It is in this vein that Governor Corzine and his team have undertaken the “Eat Right, Move More” initiative. Says Corzine; “We’re teaching our kids to make better food choices and helping them to live better, fuller lives. By helping to teach this new generation about healthy eating and increased activity, the Jets are setting an example that we hope all New Jersey children will follow.” For more information on the program and how schools are getting involved, see http://www.state.nj.us/agriculture/news/press/2006/press061121.html Back to the media’s role. The Caucus Educational Corporation is a non-profit educational production company that I am proud to be a part of. We created it nearly 20 years ago to produce educational programming on selected public televisions stations including Thirteen/WNET New York (PBS) and NJN-Public Television (PBS) as well as commercial systems like CN8-the Comcast Network and Cablevision. In 2007, the CEC will be producing several television programs on both PBS and commercial television examining the issue of childhood obesity and what can be done about it. (www.caucusnj.org) But we are not in this alone. We are also working with Rob Oliver, Founder of Fan 4 Kids (www.fan4kids.org) and Robin Dougherty, Executive Director of the Greater Newark Conservancy (www.citybloom.org), two organizations that have been critical to helping educate children about fitness and nutrition. The issue of childhood obesity is even greater in our urban centers. According to Robin Dougherty, “Urban children don’t have the same level of access to parks and recreation and fresh fruits and vegetables as suburban children do. We’re trying to educate people about how they can get access to fresh food, even if it means growing it themselves with community gardening.” Some might question why a column on childhood obesity is necessary. First, we often like to say that our children are our most precious resource. More often than not, that is nice sounding rhetoric that we don’t back up with our actions. Second, looking out for our kids and their health is a critical public policy question. It is about prioritizing and making tough decisions about the role of government and how limited tax dollars will be spent on what we say matters to us. State sponsored initiatives like “Eat Right, Move More” are important, but the state cannot and should not do this alone. Again, it is about a consortium or partnership. That’s why the New York Jets are involved. That’s why our public television stations are involved. That’s why non-profit partners are involved. And that’s why parents, school administrators, teachers and children must also be involved. Next time I will write about soaring property taxes, public employee pensions and whom is blaming whom for what in the Statehouse. But for now, the focus is on our kids, particularly those who are overweight or obese and, if ignored, are destined to a life of being unhealthy and less productive than they could and should be. Overweight and obese children are everyone’s problem. Since we all contributed to making this mess, our kids have every right to expect that we’ll help them find their way.

Childhood Obesity: A Top Priority