Are Cities Helping Turn the Tide in America’s Fight Against Childhood Obesity?

The good news:  After increasing for more than three decades, we are beginning to see childhood obesity rates fall in some states and communities.  The bad news is that these improvements are not reaching every city, town, and county.

Earlier this month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the White House celebrated important milestones in their efforts to promote children’s health.  On July 9, RWJF held an event to showcase signs of improvement in four states (California, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia) and five communities (Anchorage, Alaska; Granville and Vance Counties, N.C.; Kearney, Neb.; New York City; and Philadelphia) where childhood obesity rates have declined.  The following day, First Lady Michelle Obama joined the National League of Cities to celebrate the achievements made by local elected officials in 330 communities, which represent more than 56 million Americans, that are participating in Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.

To date, NLC has awarded 1,019 bronze, silver and gold “medals” to these local elected officials for achieving benchmarks related to the five LMCTC goals. Accomplishments include:

  • 155 communities with an active, interagency collaboration on early care and education programs to help young children develop healthy habits at an early age;
  • 991 city or county-owned or operated food-serving venues that are displaying MyPlate to provide a visual reminder of the healthy choices to consider when eating meals;
  • 69 city- or county-owned or operated food-serving venues that are adopting healthy food service guidelines aligned with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans;
  • 898,266 students who are participating in the School Breakfast Program and 1,511,717 students who are participating in the National School Lunch Program;
  • 161 communities that are creating or revitalizing park and recreation facilities; and
  • 137 communities that are making it easier to walk and bike to school or work.

We do not know which efforts have made the greatest contributions to reducing childhood obesity.  But we do know how this obesity epidemic originated: over time, children have had fewer opportunities for physical activity and less healthy food in their diets.  Making progress on obesity requires addressing the environmental factors behind these trends.  Cities, towns and counties are playing unique leadership roles in building communities that promote healthy living.

For instance, the City of Missoula, Mont., and Missoula County adopted healthier standards for all vending and concession contracts in public places.  Students also have more opportunities to be physically active thanks to a joint use agreement between the school district and parks department that opens the school gym for free programming for fourth and fifth graders.  The City of Newton, Mass., added a bike lane and sidewalk improvement program to promote more walking and cycling.  In Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., the city is using a health-in-all-policies approach, passing a top-ranked Complete Streets policy, changing zoning policies to promote community gardens, and requiring 75 percent of products sold at farmers’ markets to meet healthy food guidelines.

Yet, there is much work ahead.  According to a recent study by the University of Washington, among 34 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 27th in disease burden risk from dietary factors such as diets low in fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.  In addition, the U.S. remains one of the most obese countries in the world. The study also showed that where you live is a key predictor of health.  While residents of San Francisco, Fairfax County, Va., and Gunnison, Colo., have some of the highest life expectancies in the world, individuals in other U.S. counties experience life expectancies that are lower than or similar to levels seen in North African and Southeast Asian countries.

In her remarks on July 10, the First Lady asked local elected leaders in the audience to “double down” on their efforts and “push a little bit harder” on the actions they are taking.  She challenged city and county leaders to bring more people, such as faith leaders, business owners, teachers and parents, to the table and to encourage local elected officials in other communities to join Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.  A list of participating communities is available here.

All of us have a stake in ensuring that our children grow up to become healthy and productive adults.  Whether the U.S. makes continued progress in the fight against childhood obesity or slips further behind other nations on health indicators may hinge on the burgeoning city and county efforts to create healthier communities.

To sign up or learn more about Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties, including seeing the progress made by the more than 330 municipalities and counties participating, please visit www.HealthyCommunitiesHealthyFuture.org

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