During the last three decades in the United States, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. Fat children today can have the same arterial clogging seen frequently in middle-aged men, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Type 2 diabetes used to be called “adult onset diabetes” until an increasing number of children started to come down with it. Youth who are overweight can also suffer from poor self-image and social stigmatization. Worst of all, fat kids usually stay that way for life.
Obesity is often caused by caloric imbalance, taking in too many calories over the number burned. There are genetic and environmental factors at work, but the condition can be reversed, which is the intent of a $1.5 Million grant from the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation to ChildObesity180 to support its Healthy Kids Out of School initiative.
ChildObesity180 was founded in 2009 by Peter Dolan, former Chief Executive Officer of Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Drs. Christina Economos and Miriam Nelson, researchers at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. The foundation's goal is to develop innovative strategies to combat childhood obesity. The organization was launched with the backing of Tufts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the grand sugar daddy of anti-childhood obesity efforts (if you'll pardon the expression.) Tufts is also still involved and is considered a partner in the grant. The Harvard Pilgrim Foundation is an outgrowth of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, which started 35 years ago as one of the nation’s first health maintenance organizations (HMO).
Kids Out of School is targeting Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine with a simple message: Drink right, move more, and snack smart. The program is working with several organizations that emphasize youth physical activity including the National Council of Youth Sports, US Youth Soccer, Pop Warner, and the YMCA of the USA. It’s also working with the Girl Scouts of the USA, and the Boy Scouts of America.
The Boy Scouts' oath includes “To keep myself physically strong,” and the Girl Scouts pledge in their law, “I will do my best to be… courageous and strong.” The groups have physical fitness at the heart of their missions for kids, emphasized through hiking, camping, and the pursuit of merit badges, although Girl Scout cookie snacking is not the best way to maintain weight. Because obesity has increased faster in minority children than whites, the program is also pairing with the National Council of La Raza and the National Urban League. For rural youth, it’s also working with the National 4-H Council. Children here pledge, “my health to better living.” In fact, health is one of the "Four Hs."
The grant will be used in part to develop Healthy Kids Hub a web-based tool with guidelines to follow for volunteer leaders, coaches and children. It’s also intended to garner feedback for the program for refinement.
"By supporting the Healthy Kids Out of School initiative, we're training staff and volunteers in non-custodial afterschool programs in the same messages we've brought to afterschool child care centers over the past five years," said Karen Voci, executive director of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation.
Since childhood obesity is a major health issue that won’t go away soon, and nor will funding focused in this area. Expect more grants and increased opportunities to fight it.