Helping Children Grow Up at a Healthy Weight Starts with Healthy, Equitable Policies

Written by
Lori Fresina, Executive Director of Voices for Healthy Kids
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The State of Childhood Obesity: Prioritizing Children’s Health During the Pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to everyone concerned about the health of the next generation.

Childhood obesity rates are still far too high in our country. The newest data show that 15.5% of young people ages 10 to 17 have obesity. That means more than one in seven young people is growing up with an increased risk of developing serious medical conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. These chronic diseases can not only reduce a person’s quality of life, they can lead to premature death.

Racial and ethnic disparities in childhood obesity persist. Black, Hispanic and Native American children have higher obesity rates than white or Asian children. Among Hispanic children, the obesity rate is 20.7% and among Black children, the rate is 22.9%.

Due to the ongoing impact of systemic racism and the discrimination that permeates our society, children of color and those growing up furthest from economic opportunity are at greatest risk  for having obesity and for bearing the brunt of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

We know that having obesity increases the risk for severe symptoms from COVID-19 among people of any age, kids included. In turn, COVID-19 can increase risk factors for obesity by creating economic instability for families, and making it harder to access or afford healthy foods or find safe ways and places to be active.

This report confirms that our work and the work of our allies is more critical than ever. We need to continue to push for policy changes to support access to healthy food for all children, and economic stability for families. There are equitable policies we can support that will make the places kids live, learn and play healthier and help give all children the chance to lead healthy lives. Here’s some of what we are supporting at Voices for Healthy Kids:


Healthy School Meals

School meals are an essential source of nutrition for millions of kids, particularly those who rely on these meals every day as their primary—or sole—source of food.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as many schools have opted to change the school day structure, we’ve seen school nutrition directors and food staff workers go above and beyond to make sure children still receive meals. We need to support our school nutrition programs so they can provide nutritious meals for all children no matter what the school day looks like. Understanding that school food service programs are facing unprecedented and seemingly insurmountable challenges, we also need to hold strong and ensure that the meals kids receive are as healthy as possible.

In Michigan, state leaders have invested $2 million in a matching program that not only provides healthy school meals but also supports local farmers. The program provides 10 cents in additional funding per meal for schools that use fruits and vegetables grown in the state.


SNAP Incentive Programs

Nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) protect children and families who are struggling to afford food by reducing food insecurity. Each year this program reaches millions. As of July, SNAP enrollment has surpassed 38 million participants for FY 2020. Nearly two-thirds of these participants are children, elderly and people with disabilities.

As the economic downturn continues due to the pandemic, expanding the SNAP program will not only support families in need but also help local economies. Every $5 spent using SNAP generates as much as $9 in economic activity.

We must work to protect and expand the benefits SNAP dollars provide. One way to do that is through SNAP Incentive programs which help families stretch their food dollars when they purchase healthier foods.

We’ve been thrilled to see programs like these become more popular. For example, earlier this year Virginia invested $1.25 million in the Virginia Food Access Investment Program and Fund and expanded the number of participating retailers in the state’s incentive program.


Reduce Consumption of Sugary Drinks

We know consuming sugary drinks, such as fruit drinks with added sugar, sports drinks and soda, poses a real health risk to kids. Sugary drinks are a major contributor to the increasing rates of type 2 diabetes and heart disease - both of which put people at a greater risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms.

As state and local governments are looking to fund COVID-19 recovery efforts, sugary drink taxes have provided a funding resource to support community needs. In Seattle, city leaders used revenue from the city’s sugary drink tax to provide 6,250 food-insecure Seattle families with grocery vouchers.

In Philadelphia, city leaders invested $2 million in revenue from the city’s sugary drink tax into early care and education (ECE)  programs, enabling the city’s ECE centers to continue to provide services throughout the epidemic. 

These are just two examples of the many programs that sugary drink tax revenue can fund - programs that will help kids and families live healthier lives.


Active Communities

Voices for Healthy Kids supports state, tribal and local policies and funding, as well as influencing the use of federal funding, to make neighborhoods more livable and promote wellness by ensuring all people can be active and safe. This includes supporting efforts that enhance community physical activity (like parks, green spaces), increase active transportation and we cannot forget the need for physical activity when our kids are in school. Now more than ever we need safe places and plenty of space to allow our kids to get outside and be active.

Let’s use Wednesday’s news to recommit ourselves to taking action. Everyone has a role to play to make each day healthier for all children and we have proven policy solutions that can help us all make a difference. Find out how you can get involved in these issues and others we work on today!

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