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New Report Raises Questions on How Local Governments Should Be Involved in the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Posted Sep 29 2009 10:03pm

The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council recently released a report on steps local governments can take to prevent childhood obesity. With help from the Food and Nutrition Board, the Board on Children, Youth and Families, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practices and the Transportation Research Board, Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity, explores ideas on how to encourage healthy eating to actions for increasing physical activity. Most of the strategies in the report are very positive and reasonable. Although as a strong supporter of capitalism and small business I believe that a few of these actions would have a more negative impact on local communities and do more harm than good.

According to the report, "the health and well-being of children in the United States are threatened by the ever-increasing number and percentage who are overweight and obese- now at one in four children. Childhood and adolescent obesity has increased dramatically in just three decades." Obesity has increased from 5 percent to 12.4 percent among children ages 2-5, from 6.5 percent to 17 percent in children ages 6-11 and more than tripled in children ages 12-19. As parents we should all be concerned about these statistics. When the institute of Medicine's Standing Committee on Childhood Obesity was approached by a local city council member with this request, "I want to do something about the increasing problem of childhood obesity in our city. What are the top prevention strategies I should pursue?" this report was compiled.

The beginning of the report lists strategies that local governments can take to prevent childhood obesity in their communities. It starts out by explaining how they can encourage healthy eating habits. Communities can do everything from requiring local restaurants to provide consumers calorie and nutrition information on their menu items to encouraging consumption of fruits and vegetables by allowing farmers markets to accept low income subsidies such as food stamps and WIC (Women Infants and Children). These are all wonderful ideas.

I also believe that local governments should do more to make it easier for women to breast feed their infants. The report suggests that communities could "permit breastfeeding in public places and rescind any laws or regulations that discourage or do not allow breastfeeding in public places and encourage the creation of lactation rooms in public places."

I am a little concerned about the policies and ordinances that the report is proposing. The action steps they suggest include, taxing food and beverages that have little to no nutritional value, change zoning policies so that fast food establishments can not locate near schools and playgrounds, restrict vending machines that contain high calorie low nutrient rich foods from schools and playgrounds, and eliminate advertising and marketing of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages near school grounds and public places frequently visited by children. Even though these ideas sound good, I believe that they will only cause other community issues and discourage economic growth.

In a free market society like the United States, consumers should be able to chose what they wish to purchase without the government stepping in by adding sales tax to certain goods. Even if local governments taxed unhealthy foods and beverages like soda and potato chips if consumers want to purchase them they will. Taxing ciggarettes does not prevent people from smoking. Taxing high calorie low nutrient rich foods will not prevent people from eating them.

I also believe in free enterprise. If local governments regulate advertising and zoning business will leave those communities resulting in higher unemployment. There are better options that local governments can take to encourage healthier eating habits in their communities.

The report also includes several ideas on how communities can encourage more physical activity. All of the suggestions regarding exercise are very encouraging and should be implemented. Below are a few of the action steps that I agree with.

  • Plan, build, and maintain a network of sidewalks and street crossings that creates a safe and comfortable walking environment and that connects to schools, parks, and other destinations.
  • Adopt community policing strategies that improve safety and security of streets, especially in higher crime neighborhoods.
  • Collaborate with schools to develop an implement a Safe Routes to School program to increase the number of children safely walking and bicycling to schools.
  • Improve access to public and private recreational facilities in communities with limited recreational options through reduced costs, increased operating hours, and development of culturally appropriate activities.
I believe that safety is very important. As a resident of a high crime neighborhood I know what it is like to be stuck in your home all the time and not able to walk to your destination. If I want to go for a walk with my children I have to go somewhere else where we feel safe. Usually I take them to our local mall. I also believe that communities can do more to encourage low income families to participate in recreational activities like sports, martial arts and dance.

Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity also discusses funding for these new programs, how different communities have different needs, and how to prevent obesity in rural areas. The report is very thorough and explores several different ideas. But I believe that communities should be careful when choosing policies to improve the health of their citizens. Ordinances that discourage economic growth should be avoided.

*Editor's note: This is an editorial and does not reflect theopinions of everyone on the Healthy Moms Staff.

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