Addressing Childhood Obesity: From Public Health To Social Justice

Moving her hips and shaking her hands, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin danced the Cupid shuffle alongside elementary school kids to kick off the NAACP’s initiative on childhood obesity inside the Thurgood Marshall Center, where the famous civil rights lawyer stayed in Washington, D.C. while fighting for desegregation. It seemed like an appropriate backdrop to welcome NAACP’s effort to refocus discussion of childhood obesity as not strictly a public health crisis, but also a civil rights and social justice issue.

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin shows off her “Cupid shuffle” for Washington children on Tuesday (Photo by Jessica Marcy/KHN).

“That was fun,” Benjamin said as she took her seat. “Exercise is medicine.”

Childhood obesity, which has nearly tripled over the past three decades, impacts children from across racial groups. Yet, more than a third of black children who are obese or significantly overweight often come from communities with socio-economic conditions that hinder their ability to tackle the problem.

The NAACP held the event to release its Childhood Obesity Advocacy Manual, which they developed with CommonHealth Action, to provide tools to help local members advocate for policy changes at the local, state and federal level.

The NAACP, which also has a major initiative on HIV, hopes to use its influence as the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization with nearly 1,200 active local affiliates and 10,000 health educators to implement the childhood obesity plan over a two-year period. “That’s where the power of the NAACP comes in,” said Benjamin Jealous, the group’s president and CEO. “We have a volunteer network that no other organization in the black community has.”

In the U.S., 31.8 percent of youths between the ages of 2 and 19 – about 23 million children – are obese or significantly overweight. That includes 38 percent of Latino children, 34.9 percent of African-American children and 30.7 percent of white children. But, black children are often more likely to face obstacles to healthy lifestyles because many live in communities that, because of blight or crime, have fewer opportunities for physical activity and more limited access to healthy food options. They are also less likely to have preventive care, more likely to suffer from diabetes and more likely to visit the emergency room than white children.

Other key details from the manual include:

  • By 2008-2009, 29.2 percent of black teenage girls age 12-19 were obese, representing the highest prevalence of any age group by gender, race or ethnicity.
  • Black females born in 2000 have a 49 percent lifetime risk of being diagnosed with diabetes, which is often associated with obesity, while white females have a 31 percent risk.
  • Black males born in 2000 have a 40 percent lifetime risk while white males have a 28 percent risk of being diagnosed with diabetes during their lifetime.
  • Black women and men are less likely to accurately view themselves and their children as overweight.

“In order to take action, you need to recognize risk,” said Natalie Burke, president of CommonHealth Action.

The report calls for public policy changes in three main community areas: infrastructure such as roads, schools and park spaces; the food environment, which includes the prevalence of fresh foods in supermarkets and farmers markets; and school-based policies, which affect guidelines for school meals and physical activity. “We have to move it from a conversation about personal responsibility to an urgent conversation we need to have about public responsibility,” Jealous said.

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