NASW Lauds Childhood Obesity Task Force

NASW applauded President Barack Obama’s creation of a task force to address the nation’s childhood obesity woes, noting that it has long advocated for efforts to prevent and treat childhood obesity.

The association sent the White House a letter dated March 26 in response to the task force’s solicitation of public comments to assist it in making recommendations on public and private sector actions that can be taken to end childhood obesity within a generation. The solicitation appeared in the March 16 Federal Register.

The task force’s agenda “is ambitious but urgent,” the letter said. “If left unaddressed, the crisis of childhood obesity will translate into a steeper trajectory for our nation’s escalating health care costs. Moreover, the scope of childhood obesity in the U.S. portends the very real possibility of reduced life expectancy and diminished quality of life, as today’s children struggle with obesity-related illnesses as adults.”

The work of the task force — whose members include Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack — will focus on how to ensure children’s access to healthy, affordable food; increase physical activity in schools and communities; provide healthier food in schools; and empower parents with information and tools to make good choices for themselves and their families.

NASW told the task force it supports universal adoption of the evidence-based “5-2-1-0” message in all health encounters with children and parents. That message recommends that each day, children eat five fruits and vegetables, engage in no more than two hours of screen time such as surfing the Internet or playing video games (and no TV in rooms where children sleep), perform at least one hour of physical activity and abstain from sugar-sweetened beverages.

The association called for eliminating unhealthy competitive foods from schools and restricting their advertising near school grounds. It also recommended that the Department of Agriculture revamp its guidelines for school breakfast and lunch programs as well as its policies that promote the production of cheap sugars and refined grains over fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

NASW also recommended further study of the psychological and social effects of obesity on children, adding that social work researchers are ideally suited to perform this kind of research.

“The strong connection between low socioeconomic status and obesity bodes ill for overweight children living in poverty, as the stigmatization and discrimination they may face as obese adults may further diminish their occupational and educational opportunities,” the letter warned.

It continued, “The scourge of childhood obesity is falling disproportionately on minority children and children living in poverty. ... High-poverty, inner-city communities are often deemed ‘food deserts’ because of the limited access to nutritious food.”

To tackle the issue, NASW recommended that local and state governments offer incentives for supermarkets and farmers’ markets to open in food desert communities and enact restrictive zoning for fast food outlets.

The association also recommended that schools require daily physical education for all students and called on the federal government to provide state and local governments with grant funding to promote the development of safe recreational opportunities, such as bike paths, sidewalks and parks, and innovative after-school programming.

“Girls in particular need more opportunities to participate in formal and informal physical activity in supportive environments where they do not feel self-conscious about their looks or ability, where they can choose the activities they want, and be active in ways that make them comfortable,” the letter said.

NASW further recommended that the federal government consider social workers when it appropriates funding for demonstration projects for reducing childhood obesity and awards grants to promote the community health workforce — all of which was authorized by the recently enacted 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“With their holistic perspective, social workers understand the multifaceted nature of childhood obesity and that an array of interventions — at the individual, community and national policy levels — will be needed to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic,” the association concluded.

In related news, the April 5 issue of Newsweek included a letter from NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark in response to the magazine’s March story “Feed Your Children Well: My Fight Against Childhood Obesity,” by first lady Michelle Obama.

Clark’s letter says: “Michelle Obama is correct when she says that kids don’t make themselves obese. We would suggest that most families don’t either. The scourge of childhood obesity falls disproportionately on children in poverty, who often live in neighborhoods lacking full-service supermarkets and safe recreational opportunities. Let’s hold families responsible for making the right choices to keep their kids healthy by giving them the means to do so.”

The first lady is spearheading a nationwide campaign to complement the task force’s work of ending childhood obesity.

Branded “Let’s Move,” the campaign aims to foster collaboration among the leaders in government, medicine and science, business, education, athletics, community organizations and others, according to a White House press release.

“And it will take into account how life is really lived in communities across the country — encouraging, supporting and pursuing solutions that are tailored to children and families facing a wide range of challenges and life circumstances,” the press release stated.