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Experts: Reducing Childhood Obesity Requires Comprehensive Approach

NJ health advocates say it’s not just getting kids to exercise more and eat less junk food

Hanaa Hamdi, an assistant professor at Rutgers’ New Jersey Medical School, and actor Wendell Pierce, who owns a grocery store chain in Louisiana, were among those taking part in a conference on ways to reduce childhood obesity.

There’s more to reducing childhood obesity in New Jersey than better diets and more exercise. Business practices, how children learn about health and even local zoning laws can all have an impact on the problem, according to leading health experts.

That’s why health advocates are aiming to build coalitions that include parents, community and business leaders, local planners and children themselves to reverse an obesity epidemic that is leading to chronic health problems like diabetes.

Nationally, the childhood obesity rate rose steadily from roughly 1980 to 2005, before leveling off. In New Jersey, the rate of 11 percent of children who are obese has held steady since 2005.

Over time, factors ranging from the low price of junk food to insufficient access to parks and recreation facilities have contributed to the problem, experts say.

“Everyone needs to be committed to changing the characteristic of our society that fosters unhealthiness, to one that fosters us to be healthy,” said Dr. John R. Lumpkin, senior vice president of the Plainsboro-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This current generation is the first generation that’s at risk of living sicker and dying younger than their parents.”

National advocates for improved health say state and local governments can have a meaningful effect on childhood obesity. They spoke at a conference yesterday hosted by the Clinton Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the Newark Museum.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, said state officials could encourage the sale of healthy food on state property, such as in state cafeterias.

“Governments around the country are seeing that that’s an easy win – to get rid of the junk and to have more healthful foods, more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, less soda or no soda in some cases,” said Jacobson, who also supports taxing soda at 1 cent per ounce.

Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, rejected the tax proposal, saying it was unpopular and would be ineffective. But she said the industry is willing to work with officials and advocates, noting that soda makers have been shifting toward smaller, 7.5-ounce soda cans in schools, which is leading to reductions in the calories students drink.

Lumpkin said working in cooperation with businesses has been essential to public health initiatives like the Partnership for a Healthier America.

“Even though there are clear disagreements between advocates and industry, there are also areas where they worked together,” he said.

Making sure children have access to fresh food and exercise is a key component in reducing childhood obesity, but everything from a lack of knowledge to outdated zoning can make this difficult.

Hanaa Hamdi, an assistant professor at Rutgers’ New Jersey Medical School, said zoning can make it difficult for stores that want to sell fresh food to locate in areas that are easily accessible to pedestrians or those using public transit. She’s been working on an initiative in Newark in which low-income families receive fresh produce, participate in specially designed physical activity programs, and get health and nutrition education.

The actor Wendell Pierce, who co-owns a grocery chain in Louisiana, said funding – whether in the form of government subsidies or private loans -- can help overcome the economics that prevent grocery stores from opening in low-income areas.

But Pierce emphasized that just building the stores isn’t enough. It takes changing people’s habits, which takes time.

Lumpkin agreed: “A business can go in and innovate, and they may fail, but then another business can go in. It really takes a concerted effort by the community. But one thing is recognizing that this is something that needs to be done.”

Several experts also said that improving children’s fitness also involves a series of cultural changes.

Darius Sollohub, director of New Jersey Institute of Technology’s New Jersey School of Architecture, said the number of children who walk or bike to school has dropped from 66 percent in 1974 to 17 percent today.

Even building schools with stairs became unpopular at one point due to concerns about falls, Sollohub said. He said ideas about making fitness a priority in architecture and urban design have been adopted by present-day architects and planners.

Hamdi pointed to another problem with developing solutions that systematically address childhood obesity – many grant programs have a narrow focus.

Sam Kass, executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative, said steps are occurring at a national level to change that, as a wide range of government and private-sector leaders have recognized that the issue is serious and requires comprehensive solutions.

Disclaimer: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides funding for NJ Spotlight’s health reporting.

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