May 21, 2018
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Sidewalks v. Spinach

A national goal of dropping the nation’s childhood obesity rate to 5 percent this year now can be seen as hopelessly naive. Not only is the 5 percent goal out of reach, the rate actually is moving in the wrong direction — it is up 10 percent since 2003.

Worse, efforts to reduce childhood obesity largely appear to be failing. A North Carolina school district, for example, found that its well-intentioned switch to more healthful foods in its cafeterias ended up costing so much money that the effort was abandoned.

So, what is needed? Rather than lots of small steps — more vegetables and fewer fries in the cafeteria or planting gardens at schools — a change in mindset, followed with on-the-ground changes, is called for.

Not surprisingly, a big risk factor for childhood obesity is neighborhoods without sidewalks or parks. Yet, there are few efforts to promote, through financial incentives or building codes, neighborhoods where kids can walk safely, ride bikes or play.

Without these changes, goals to reduce childhood — and adult — obesity will remain largely illusory.

Nationally, about 16 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese, which is defined as having a body mass index in the 95th percentile or higher. That is 10 percent higher than in 2003.

Oregon has the lowest rate of childhood obesity at 10 percent. Fifteen percent of children entering kindergarten had a BMI greater than the 95th percentile, according to the 2005 Maine Child Health Survey. A 2007 Maine Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 13 percent of the state’s high school students were obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited a lack of health education, too little physical education and activity and the prevalence of television and video games as the main reasons for the obesity problem.

Efforts to get junk food, soda and advertisements for these products out of schools in Maine have been partially successful. Initiatives to improve school lunches are likely to face roadblocks as well.

North Carolina found that it had to raise lunch prices to cover the cost of more healthful foods. Students responded to the higher prices by going to nearby fast food restaurants where they said they could get more food for the same price.

As with so many other large problems, this one cannot be solved by schools alone. Instead, a mindset that emphasizes and encourages exercise and healthful eating must result in policies, such as a requirement for sidewalks and green space in new communities, which can begin to reverse the obesity trend.

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