By Peter Orszag
Although childhood obesity in the United States is a stubbornly difficult problem, some progress is being made. And the new organizations fighting obesity offer larger lessons for national policy.
This month — National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month — has brought more evidence that obesity in youngsters leads to health problems throughout life. A study overseen by Sara Watson of Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University, which has tracked more than 1,000 adolescents from Indianapolis since 1986, found that 26 percent of those who were obese when they were young had high blood pressure in adulthood. Yet only 6 percent of normal-weight children wound up with high blood pressure when they grew up.
So there is reason to be relieved that the childhood obesity rate, after rising significantly for several decades, appears to have stabilized over the past few years at about 17 percent. In many states, the rate has actually declined.
According to a summary of the trend by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, many of the areas experiencing declines have "made broad, sweeping changes to make healthy foods available in schools and communities and integrate physical activity into people's daily lives." (I serve on the board of directors of this foundation.)
In West Virginia, where in 2005 an astounding 30.5 percent of fifth graders were obese, the rate dropped to 27.8 percent in 2011. This state has been conducting body mass index assessments in public schools and, in 2008, set nutritional requirements for school meals, drinks and snacks.
Despite this headway, obesity remains far too prevalent in the United States, including in West Virginia. The next stage of progress may be harder to reach, but at least there are new strategies to try.
An organization called Child Obesity 180 has, for example, brought together leaders from academia and business, embracing the tension that often arises from such collaboration. The group includes chief executive officers such as David Dillon from the Kroger Co., David Cordani from Cigna Corp. and Denise Morrison from the Campbell Soup Co., along with the leaders of youth organizations such as the YMCA and Sesame Workshop and a number of university scientists.
Along with diverse membership, Child Obesity 180 has adopted a commitment to selecting projects based on evidence. The Breakfast Initiative aims to get schools to provide healthy breakfasts, including by experimenting with meals in the classroom. The Active Schools Acceleration Project is holding a competition to promote greater physical activity. The Healthy Kids Out of School effort encourages other groups to provide a consistent message: "drink right," "move more" and "snack smart." And the Restaurant Initiative looks to boost the demand for and the supply of healthy options when kids eat out.
The data coming in from these programs will inevitably show that some are not succeeding, and the organization has said it will scale back or drop any that prove unworkable after a fair test. If Child Obesity 180 lives up to its stated commitment to following the evidence, it will provide a shining example of how to combat many other important social problems.
The federal government itself spends far too much money on efforts not backed by evidence of effectiveness. And once a program gets going, it's almost impossible to end it, even if it's a failure. Childhood obesity is a problem demanding effective solutions — but it's not the only one. As Congress turns its attention to the debt limit and next year's spending levels, it would do well to follow Child Obesity 180's practical approach.
Peter Orszag is vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.
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