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What is the government’s role in childhood obesity?

March 12, 2011

New York Times Columnist Charles Blow asks whether the government should have a significant role in reducing childhood obesity?

According to a Pew poll Mr. Blow cites in his column, 60 percent of Americans say “yes,” which is not much of  surprise.

Everyone has a role to play if we are going to reduce childhood obesity, including government. In fact, other recent polls also show bipartisan support for government efforts to help build healthy diets and lifestyles. According to this poll, 41 percent of Republicans said “yes,” including 50 percent of moderate Republicans.

Unfortunately, Mr. Blow twists the good news in this poll to blast the “right.”

His argument goes something like this: the Obama Administration is for sensible solutions to rising rates of childhood obesity, the “right” opposes everything the Obama Administration does, and the “right” is advocating against their own interests because obesity rate are higher in southern states. After his long assault on the “right,” Blow does allow that this should be a bipartisan issue.

Huh?

In fact, the government is already playing a significant role in the fight against rising rates of obesity. And, support for government efforts to combat obesity is already bipartisan.

For example, the Congress just last fall passed the most sweeping changes to school nutrition law in decades, including provisions to give USDA the power to set standards for food sold to students.  The bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was developed by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AK) and Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and was passed with Republican support.

Even so, there is still more the government can do to support healthy diets and lifestyles, especially among children. And, many of these of the proposals are supported by Republicans, including Reps. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), Todd Platts (R-PA), Michael Burgess (R-TX), and Jim Gerlach (R-PA).

For example, government can do more to promote greater access to healthy foods by bringing grocery stores to underserved areas (as proposed last year by Rep. Burgess). Americans cannot make a healthy choice if they do not have access to healthy choices, and too many Americans lack access to a grocery store. As USDA recently reported, more than 20 million Americans living in low-income neighborhoods lack access to a grocery store.

Government can also do more to promote physical activity in school.For example, government could set standards for physical activity in our schools (as proposed last year in H.R. 4557), integrate physical activity throughout the school day (as proposed last year in the S. 651), track levels of physical activity on a state-by-state basis (as proposed last year in H.R. 1585), expand funding for Physical Education Program grants (as proposed in several bills last year), establish national standards for physical education curriculum (as proposed last year in H.R. 5209), and establish physical education as a core curriculum subject (also proposed last year in H.R. 5209).

These efforts should not be limited to the school day. Government can do more to promote physical activity before and after school. For example, government can expand the safe routes to schools program (as proposed last year in H.R. 4021), expand programs that support sports in low-income communities (such as the National Youth Sports Program), support after-school programs that provide opportunities for physical activity, and provide new resources to build sidewalks, parks and trails (as proposed last year in H.R. 5209).

Many of these proposals were supported by Democrats and Republicans. That is, in Blow’s words, legislators in both parties already view childhood obesity as “all-hands-on-deck issue.”

So, who has turned obesity into a partisan issue? Perhaps that’s the question Mr. Blow should be asking.

This year, the reauthorization of education and transportation legislation provide rare opportunities to build physical activity into our kids’ days – before, during and after school. And, the reauthorization of farm legislation provides an opportunity to increase access to healthy choices and to help make those choices more affordable

The good news is that policies that support healthy diets and lifestyles – by expanding physical activity before, during and after school and by providing healthier choices at school and at home – enjoy broad public support and broad bipartisan support. Concern about childhood obesity is as broad as it is deep, so it is not surprising that the range of organizations supporting bills like the Healthy CHOICES Act introduced last year by Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) and Rep. Mary Bono-Mack (R-CA) spans the political spectrum.


Filed under: Health and Nutrition

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