How Will Public Policy Strategies to Reverse Childhood Obesity Address Health Disparities in Communi

June 23, 2010

by Rosa Ramirez, Go for the Gold Campaign Manager

Blog-1

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.”