by Rosa Ramirez, Go for the Gold Campaign Manager
Parent advocates discuss strategy at Parents United for Healthy Schools training
The epidemic of childhood obesity is, for the first time, a major topic of national conversation. And big strides are being taken in understanding the causes and implications of childhood obesity. As we move forward as a nation and craft public policy to address this epidemic, it is important that we keep in mind the great disparities that exist in obesity rates, particularly in Latino and African-American communities, and that we look to existing initiatives that have been successful in combating childhood obesity in communities of color.
The Center for American Progress, a non-profit non-partisan research organization, released a memo earlier this month urging lawmakers to develop and implement public policy strategies that tackle childhood obesity disparities among minorities head-on.
In the memo, Sonia Sekhar puts the health disparities in childhood obesity in context:
The prevalence of childhood obesity has risen among all racial and ethnic subgroups over the years, but the growth has been more pronounced for communities of color. Childhood obesity rates of African Americans and Hispanics increased by about 120 percent between 1986 and 1998, but among non-Hispanic whites it grew by 50 percent.. . . Allowing this problem to continue to grow at its current pace will have dire economic, social, and public health consequences, including lower life expectancy in the 21st century. With the Census projecting that minorities will make up more than half of the U.S. population by 2050, the disparity in obesity rates among African Americans, Hispanics, and whites has profound implications for the nation’s health, not to mention the billions of dollars it could add to our nation’s health care costs.
Sekhar argues that addressing these disparities must be a specific and central element of public policy efforts to change the course of the obesity epidemic.
"Approaches that ignore the factors that influence obesity rates in Hispanic and black communities will only have marginal effects on reducing its prevalence," she writes.
Leaders in Washington, DC are taking important strides to combat childhood obesity and are laying significant groundwork: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the First Lady’s Let’s Move Initiative, the recommendations of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report, efforts to reform school food and much more.
Yet, as Sekhar explains, we need to focus attention to specifically addressing racial and ethnic disparities in obesity to overcome the health disparities that plague our communities. As we do so, we can learn from successful examples on the ground.
In Chicago, we've seen that parents and community members can be powerful catalysts for school-based change to promote health in communities of color.
Parent activists involved in Parents United for Healthy Schools/Padres Unidos para Escuelas Saludables, an HSC-led coalition of more than 40 community organizations and parent groups from low-income African-American and Latino communities, have steadily been making changes in schools and throughout neighborhoods.
Since 2006, hundreds of parents have graduated from HSC’s four-day parent training program resulting in a strong community base that is actively promoting healthy changes in more than sixty Chicago Public Schools and helping lead 35 school wellness teams. Parents collected 4,000 petitions in support of recess and presented them to the Chicago Board of Education, advocated for improved school nutrition standards at the district level and have been successful in incorporating food and fitness goals in their local schools' School Improvement Plans.
These efforts mean that children in low-income Latino and African-American communities facing health disparities and high rates of childhood obesity now have more access to healthy food and physical activity at school. At the same time, many of the parents and community members involved have transformed their own lifestyles to include more healthy eating and physical activity.
Community-based strategies such as those that are working in Chicago and across the country can be an effective and important part of our nation's strategy to reverse childhood obesity in a generation. National leaders must recognize the racial and ethnic disparities in obesity; equally important is the need to raise awareness of the strategies that are successful in reversing them.
"A more highly targeted effort is needed to address the gaping racial and ethnic disparities that exist in this realm," Sekhar writes. "Considering the groundwork laid by both the health reform law and the Let’s Move initiative with the Presidential Task Force on Obesity, tackling obesity within a generation—especially among racial and ethnic minority populations—is certainly within our reach."