melody-c-barnes_web.jpgAs part of the Obama Administration’s emphasis on the importance of health and wellness, First Lady Michelle Obama and the President’s Task Force on Childhood Obesity recently released a report offering recommendations on reducing the obesity rate for children across the nation.  

Using the resources of the federal government, and the energy and enthusiasm of communities across the country, this report serves as a roadmap for meeting the goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation. This issue is of critical importance to African Americans because of the epidemic of obesity currently impacting our community, and the long-term implications in particular for our children.

Statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services tell the tale, and are a great cause for concern.  In 2007, 35 percent of African Americans over age 18 were diagnosed as obese. 

However, even more alarming during that same period is the childhood obesity rate for African Americans ages 2-19. It is 19.8 percent for African-American boys, and significantly higher, at 29 percent, for African-American girls. 

When these conditions are allowed to persist over time, a child can develop serious health concerns, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.  According to HHS, deaths from heart disease and stroke are twice the rate for African Americans as compared to whites.

That is why this new, comprehensive approach to attacking the childhood obesity issue, anchored by a healthy diet and increased physical activity, is so important. 

When the first lady launched her “Let’s Move” campaign in February, President Barack Obama directed the Task Force on Childhood Obesity to develop a plan that included recommendations for what both the public and private sectors can do.

Twelve federal agencies, the Office of the First Lady, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House Domestic Policy Council are partnering to implement the more than 70 recommendations from the childhood obesity report, which include:

• Getting children a healthy start on life, with good prenatal care, support for breastfeeding, adherence to limits on “screen time,” and quality child care settings with nutritious food and ample opportunity for young children to be physically active.

• Empowering parents and caregivers with simpler, more actionable messages about nutritional choices based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans; improved labels on food and menus that provide clear information to help make healthy choices for children; reduced marketing of unhealthy products to children; and improved health care services, including BMI (Body Mass Index) measurements for all children.

• Providing healthy food in schools, through improvements in federally supported school lunches and breakfasts; upgrading the nutritional quality of other foods sold in schools; and improving nutrition education and the overall school environment.

• Improving access to healthy, affordable food by eliminating “food deserts” (areas where nutritional food is hard to find) in urban and rural America; lowering the relative prices of healthier foods; developing or reformulating food products to be healthier; and reducing the incidence of hunger, which has been linked to obesity.

• Getting children more physically active through quality physical education, recess and other opportunities during and after school; addressing aspects of the “built environment” that make it difficult for children to walk or bike safely in their communities; and improving access to safe parks, playgrounds and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities.

The Administration recognizes that government alone cannot solve this challenge. A new
foundation called the Partnership for a Healthier America, in which former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist and Newark Mayor Cory Booker serve as honorary vice chairs, will work with the first lady to cement private sector commitments toward the shared goal of reducing childhood obesity.

The Partnership just this week announced a new pledge by a coalition of food and beverage companies to take actions aimed at reducing 1.5 trillion product calories by 2015. This will be accomplished by adjusting the content of recipes and serving sizes to best fit today’s caloric needs.

The president also called for the plan to include measurable benchmarks that would allow us to track our progress over time. 

The Task Force will monitor our progress through benchmarks such as increasing the number of children who are eating a healthy diet (with a particular emphasis on less added sugar and more fruits and vegetables), and increasing the number of children getting the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity.

We have already begun with programs and activities throughout the country. This summer, you will hear more about the “Let’s Move” campaign and our efforts to get kids more physically active during the warm summer months, to offer ideas for healthy meals with quality ingredients, and to support communities that have been particularly hit hard by the childhood obesity crisis.

We can beat childhood obesity if we are all working together.

Melody Barnes is the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.