April 4, 2011
By Josefine Wendel
Did you know that 34% of K–8 students in the Cambridge Public Schools are either overweight or obese?
This troubling statistic reflects a national problem: Nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese. The childhood obesity epidemic has taken its greatest toll on poor families and children of color.
Overweight and obese children are at greater risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, and other serious conditions as they get older. Many kids feel the impact much sooner.
It always saddens me when I see a child struggling to keep up with his friends on the playground because of weight. The sheer joy of movement is so essential to being a child, and being active prepares young bodies and brains for learning.
A generation ago, childhood obesity was something most families didn’t need to worry about. They sent their kids to school, let them play outside before dinner, fed them whatever mom cooked for the family, and saved treats and soda for special occasions. The result was that most kids growing up in the 1960s and 1970s followed normal growth patterns into adulthood.
Families today are swimming against the tide to keep their kids at a healthy weight. They are bombarded with unhealthy food choices, from super-sized restaurant meals to supermarket aisles devoted to baked treats, chips, candy, and soda. For working parents feeling squeezed for time, these options are especially tempting.
Young school children are given little or no time for recess or outdoor playtime. After school, kids too often come home to the fridge, TV, and Facebook instead of playing with friends in the park. And a seemingly endless number of occasions call for special treats—youth sports games, classroom parties, even good behavior at school.
I believe it is possible for families to construct a world for children filled with sports, healthy foods, and walking to school. But, unlike a generation ago, it is now a job that takes time, thought, and effort. Often families that would benefit the most from a healthier lifestyle lack the time and money to make it happen.
Absent the opportunity to travel back in time, there is no magic cure for obesity. But Cambridge parents can do some simple things that can have a real impact. As a family, drink more water instead of sugary beverages. Eat more vegetables and fruits. Cook simple meals at home. Whenever possible, walk or bike instead of drive. Turn off the TV and computer. Take family walks around Fresh Pond or visit one of the city’s many parks.
By making good choices for yourself and your family, you may also be helping people in your social network adopt healthier habits. As research is starting to show, health behaviors are contagious.
While families certainly have an important role to play, they will succeed only if organizations and government do more to make change possible by creating an environment that supports healthy weight.
Cambridge is one of the few U.S. cities that has experienced a small but significant decrease in childhood obesity.
How did this happen? It wasn’t one program or policy that made the difference—it was many aimed at creating a healthier environment for children.
A dedicated group of public health professionals, civic leaders, nutritionists, school nurses, PE teachers, food service staff, parents, and others have been working together since the late 1990s to reverse the city’s obesity epidemic.
In the public schools, school meals now include healthier and locally grown foods, gym class now offers activities like cycling and ballroom dancing that appeal to a larger number of children, and school gardens have been established in all elementary schools. The city has created safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists, increased the number of farmers’ markets, and offers many inexpensive recreational activities.
Later this year, the Cambridge Food and Fitness Policy Council will provide suggestions and strategies for how the city can continue to improve residents’ access to affordable, healthy foods and fitness opportunities.
When Cambridge signed on to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign this past February, city leaders committed to help solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation. To achieve this ambitious goal, all of us must do our part to make the healthy choice the easy choice.
Josefine Wendel, MS, RD, is the school nutrition coordinator for the Cambridge Public Health Department. This article was originally published in the Cambridge Chronicle on March 31, 2011.