Pulse: White House to target childhood obesity

Alan Blinder

The White House formally launched an effort Tuesday to combat childhood obesity as President Barack Obama created a federal task force to examine what has become an epidemic in recent years.

Researchers say one in three children in the United States are overweight or obese and that without significant changes, the generation could become the first to live shorter lives than its parents.

“When a third of the nation’s children are obese, that is not something to be proud of,” said education secretary Arne Duncan during a conference call with reporters.

Margaret Garner, a dietitian at the University Medical Center who said she once saw a three-year-old in her office who weighed 90 pounds, applauded the White House’s efforts to counter obesity at an early age.

“It’s becoming more and more of a problem,” she said.

The federal government, which said Tuesday it wants to solve the obesity crisis within a generation, will emphasize diet and exercise.

Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, said it will take a “comprehensive approach” to successfully reduce the obesity threat. “There is no single solution to combat childhood obesity,” she said.

Duncan and Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said one way Washington will do its part will be by seeking to improve the quality of the approximately 7.6 billion lunches schools serve annually. “We need to have healthier meals in schools,” Duncan said.

Vilsack added that the government will use its partnerships with outside organizations to make a national push for healthy habits. He noted that his department has partnerships with the National Football League and the Dairy Council, both of which are leading campaigns in an effort to improve childhood health.

In establishing the task force and announcing that first lady Michelle Obama will be the face of an awareness campaign, the White House sought to combine and coordinate the efforts of Cabinet-level agencies with the star power of the first lady.

Michelle Obama hit the airwaves early Tuesday in an effort to draw attention to eating habits. The first lady emphasized moderation. “I love burgers and fries, and I love ice cream and cake, and so do most kids,” Obama said on ABC. “We’re not talking about a lifestyle that excludes all that.”

Later in the day during the conference call, administration officials emphasized the effects of the obesity epidemic.

Sebelius said that researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that obesity costs the nation about $150 billion annually.

Sebelius, though, said that the financial toll is far from the only effect. “It’s the human costs that are even more alarming,” she said, noting that diabetes and high blood pressure are often side effects of obesity.

Duncan, the education secretary, focused on the impact of obesity on a child’s future success. “If children aren’t healthy, they can’t learn. They can’t reach their maximum academic potential,” he said.

Obesity rates in the South are the highest of any place in the United States, but the three Cabinet secretaries emphasized obesity as a national crisis.

The health secretary’s comments surmised the views of her colleagues. “Even though is clearly a problem in the South, we’ve got a national problem. There is no part of the country that is escaping this issue with our kids,” Sebelius said.

To learn more about the federal government’s campaign, visit letsmove.gov.

To schedule an appointment with a dietitian, contact the Student Health Center.