Should Local Government Do More To Tackle Childhood Obesity?

Childhood obesity has becoming a serious concern across the US. And whilst there have been several initiatives that have seen some minimal success, such as SNAP and Color Me Healthy. There is of course a lot more work to be done as the obesity rate amongst minors continues to soar. Local governments play a crucial role in addressing this issue as children spend a large portion of their time in schools run by these bodies and as such the legislators have a duty of care not only to the children, but to the long term health of their constituents. Currently the United States is of course heading for a medical disaster if more is not done to promote healthy eating and active living at a young age.

The Impact of Healthy Choices on Childhood Obesity

The choices we make regarding food and physical activity have a significant impact on our health and weight outcomes, and a habits around this can be set at a very early age.

Around 55% of obese children stay obese as teens and 80% of obese adolescents will still be obese in adulthood with most of them remaining obese past 30, where serious health risks begin to appear.

Healthy eating and regular physical activity can reduce the risk of various chronic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain cancers.

It is up to local governments to take actually to encourage physical activity and make sure children are well educated on healthy eating.

By encouraging and enabling children to make healthy choices from an early age, local governments can lay the foundation for lifelong healthy eating patterns. Even if we look at this without a moral lense then it is still vitally important for a regions economy in the long term. As the cost of health issues takes a staggering toll.

The Role of Local Government In Childhood Obesity

Local government agencies have traditionally been at the forefront of public health programs and policies. Whilst not all issues are systematic, lack of safe outdoor play areas, sports facilities or access to healthy food is of course within the realm of town planning and should be somewhat obviously within local governments remit.

As is of course the education system, with schooling around healthy eating being essential. There is a theory that 60 years ago the difference in classes between males and females did mean that at least one member of the family unit would have had a reasonable grasp on home economics and food making. Many parents have wrongly assumed that the same information would be passed to their children an over the generations this knowledge is not what it once was.

There is also the prevalence of convenience and more unhealthy choices than ever before compounding these issues. As well as far less rigorous physical education demands than say the 40s and 50s. As such we need to take a more well balanced approach making sure there is further information and activities outside of the school system.

Local governments have the power to influence and implement changes that directly impact childhood obesity rates.

Departments such as public health, public works, transportation, parks and recreation, and planning all have a role to play in creating an environment that supports healthy lifestyles.

For example, reducing vehicle traffic around play areas can be an advantage, but not if it disrupts routes to sports clubs or causes other issues. Meaning a light touch is often necessary with this sort of planning as it often goes wrong. We’ve seen several implementations of cycle routes having an overall negative effect as they went unused, but isolated some communities from facilities even more due to increased traffic. This is not to say that they are a bad idea, just that some examples were not effectively implemented. Community leaders need to be mindful in addressing such concerns as there have been cases where ideas have been pushed through without concern to local opposition due to an “I know best attitude”.

So, What Programs Are Useful?

Materials and education for parents, particularly in at risk communities. Working with church organizations to help people plan healthy and affordable meals has been shown to be beneficial, particularly in African American communities which are often more at risk.

Then there have been farmers market voucher systems for people who receive other benefits, again this has proved to be relatively useful.

Schemes like color me healthy as we mentioned in the intro has had a reasonable impact in their goal of making healthy eating fun and engaging by associating different colors of fruits and vegetables with various health benefits and nutrients. This approach can help children develop a positive attitude toward nutritious foods and encourage them to make healthier choices. And of course plenty of their content is available online.

Eat Well Play Hardis also relatively well documented as a replicable intervention, with details on how to work with local childcare providers readily available.

Iowa took action in encouraging the placement of healthy vending machines and Baltimore also looked to promote access to healthy food stores. This can be done with government funding working with local community groups to support start up costs, which can be relatively minimal for the long term and even short term benefits.

Working with parents is as important as reaching the children, and working with employers by providing supporting material or offering free budget healthy meal cooking classes can work well. We do recommend offering these online as well for those who feel embarrassed by such things.

It is also worth mentioning that the government should be seen as helping, not forcing. Keep this in mind, are you giving people something, or making them do something. This is of course, where we suggest working with faith groups rather than say environmental groups is better for this sort of activity.

Understanding Childhood Activity and Obesity

It is also important for both parents and educators to have access to tools to understand the situation of the children in their care. We advise informing relevant parties of standard templates such as the existing NAP SACC information, we have a link to the parent hand out here, whilst educators should already be aware of this, it is not a given.

Leadership and Advocacy

Remember Local governments have jurisdiction over various aspects that influence the availability of healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.

They can leverage this power to implement policies, ordinances, and programs that support healthy lifestyles.

Zoning regulations can dictate the location of farmers' markets and supermarkets, ensuring convenient access to nutritious foods. However, it is also important to remember that this needs to be done with a soft touch.

Limitations on advertising unhealthy products and menu labeling requirements in restaurants can also impact consumption choices. It is also often beneficial to encourage listing of calories where possible.

Additionally, local governments can influence community development and planning, transportation policies, and the availability and maintenance of parks and recreation facilities, all of which contribute to increased physical activity.

Tailoring Efforts to Different Communities

Recognizing the unique characteristics and needs of different communities is essential in developing effective childhood obesity prevention efforts. Rural, suburban, and urban communities all face distinct challenges and require tailored strategies. In rural areas, where access to healthy food is limited and transportation options are scarce, local governments can work towards increasing access to supermarkets and improving public transportation. Suburban communities can focus on creating activity-friendly environments by incorporating sidewalks, parks, and bike paths into their design. Urban communities, on the other hand, may need to address economic disparities and the high density of fast-food restaurants.

Steps in Planning Local Childhood Obesity Prevention Efforts

Fortunately for local governments there are templates to follow for a systematic and measurable approach.

Center TRT has several guiding documents that can be found here, as to how to set up, and monitor the efficacy of such practices.

These steps include:

1. Conduct a Community Assessment

A community assessment is a crucial first step in understanding the existing environment and identifying areas that need improvement. Local government officials should gather information on the availability of healthy food options, access to physical activity opportunities, and community perceptions of safety. This assessment will help identify existing strengths and gaps in the community's efforts towards promoting healthy lifestyles.

2. Involve Constituents

Community involvement is vital in implementing successful childhood obesity prevention efforts. Local governments should actively engage with community members and organizations to understand their needs and perspectives. By involving constituents, local officials can gain valuable insights and ensure that their initiatives address the specific challenges faced by the community.

3. Identify Policy Priorities

Based on the community assessment and input from constituents, local governments can identify priority areas for policy development. These policies should focus on improving access to healthy foods, creating activity-friendly environments, and promoting breastfeeding. Examples of policy measures include zoning regulations, menu labeling requirements, and transportation policies that prioritize pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure.

4. Secure Funding

Identifying funding sources is crucial for the successful implementation of childhood obesity prevention efforts. Local governments can explore partnerships with state and federal agencies, as well as seek grants and private sector support. By securing funding, local governments can allocate resources to program implementation, evaluation, and sustainability.

5. Program Sustainability

Sustainability is key to the long-term success of childhood obesity prevention programs. Local governments should develop strategies to ensure the continued funding, implementation, and evaluation of their initiatives. This may involve building partnerships with community organizations, leveraging existing resources, and integrating prevention efforts into broader health and wellness initiatives.

6. Program Evaluation

Regular evaluation of childhood obesity prevention programs is essential to assess their effectiveness and make necessary adjustments. Local governments should establish mechanisms to collect and analyze data on program outcomes and impact. Evaluation findings can inform future decision-making, help identify areas for improvement, and guide resource allocation. Details on program evaluation can be foud here.

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