Combating Childhood Obesity
By Michelle Ballasiotes
Global childhood obesity rates are on the rise. In the United States, there have been many efforts to try to combat the epidemic like healthier school lunches, more parks, and increased access to healthy foods.
I lobbied Congress in Washington, D.C. with the American Heart Association (AHA) for the national Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2016. The goal was to provide nutritious, fresh school lunches for students from low-income families who would otherwise come to school without lunch.
When children have access to nutritious food, they can focus better in school and take advantage of their education. Increased physical activity also helps children focus better in class. The notion that schools should provide nutritious food instead of processed, unhealthy food is just common sense. Investing in the type of food students eat and the amount of physical activity they receive means investing in their future.
Access to healthy foods outside of school is also important. Some states in the U.S. have worked with local corner store owners to incorporate healthy foods into areas that have historically had limited access to fresh foods and an overabundance of fatty foods. Surveys have shown young kids often come into the corner stores to buy a soda and/or candy bar after school.
If our corner stores have resources to sell healthy food, including refrigeration and marketing tools, people in lower-income neighborhoods will be able to finally choose healthy foods. I participated in some of these efforts with Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) and the AHA in North Carolina and we were successful in receiving funding from the state to provide these resources.
How lack of safe routes to school impacts obesity
An equally important problem is the lack of safe, accessible public walkways in some states; which can provide yet another challenge to the potential opportunity of physical activity by students in their daily commute. A sustainable city (SDG 15) means its citizens, especially young people and people living with disabilities, can walk freely to parks, schools, and stores. Many of us live close enough to walk to our schools, but not all of us have a safe path to get there.
There may be unsafe roads, incomplete sidewalks, poor signage, or other barriers that make the walk potentially dangerous. The national Safe Routes to School program from 2005 to 2010 provided funding to create more bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks around school zones. This initiative gave parents the reassurance their kids will be safer on their walk to school. The increased physical activity is an additional benefit from the program.
There has also been a push to create more parks and greenways in the urban areas of the U.S. Often, children in urban schools lack safe, nearby green spaces for physical activity. Many cities are developing greenspaces and adding parks, so children and families can be active outside and enjoy their time together.
Tackling this complex issue.
Tackling the obesity epidemic is a complex issue. Through incorporating healthier school lunches, increasing proximity to fresh foods, and creating safe public spaces, we are trying to reduce the obesity epidemic among children and create safer, more sustainable, resilient cities for future generations.
We are far from reaching our goal, but I hope this model inspires more cities across the globe to link schools to healthy foods and think critically future city planning.
Michelle Ballasiotes is an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill planning to major in Health Policy and Management at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She attended the 2017 NCD Alliance Global Forum as a youth delegate representing the American Heart Association.
Combat NCDs for adolescent health
Young people often lack enabling environments where their needs are respected and addressed—and where they feel safe and are encouraged to adopt healthier lifestyles.
We still have a long way to go to ensure that the workplace, cities, families and communities offer the information, infrastructure, opportunities and services to improve the situation. This is critical if we are serious about fighting noncommunicable diseases among young people.
The good news is that NCDs are generating increasing interest within the international community. Over the past years, major action platforms and tools have been launched in these areas, including the Every Woman Every Child Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, with a particular focus on the vulnerabilities and needs of young people.
Investing in adolescents’ health is key to achieving more prosperous and peaceful societies. We can protect young people from NCDs by creating healthier school environments and communities.