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Andrew Hysell

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Faith Leaders and the Campaign For Healthy Kids

Posted: 10/10/11 03:28 PM ET

Growing up, I spent many Sunday mornings listening to my mother deliver the weekly sermon to her small congregation in rural, upstate New York. As a Presbyterian minister, she spoke not only of the wisdom found in the Old and New Testament, but also of how those biblical lessons could and should be applied to contemporary life.

The struggles of humanity are timeless and teachings recorded thousands of years ago are relevant today.

I was reminded at a meeting of national faith leaders hosted by the Campaign for Healthy Kids in Washington, D.C. The meeting brought together diverse faith leaders from across the country to advocate together for an intervention to fight childhood obesity called Coordinated School Health. Although everyone's faith was different, the cause was the same -- a unified desire to promote the welfare of children.

Working to demonstrate God's love and to protect children is a common thread running through all major religions. An important theme in Christianity, Jesus cherished the lives of the poor, stating that the meek shall inherit the earth. In the New Testament, Jesus said, "Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me" (Mark 9:36-37). The Old Testament makes clear that children are blessings in Psalms 127:3 (NLT): "Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him." Further, Muslim believers are taught the importance of loving children through one of the most famous Hadith sayings: "He who does not show compassion to the young and respect to the elderly is not one of us."

Faith communities put these teachings into practice in their work to protect and advocate for children's interests both in the United States and abroad. The Muslim Aga Khan Development Network's education efforts provide early, elementary and secondary education to poor children in over 30 countries. The American Jewish World Service campaigns to protect children from violence in Darfur and to promote gender equality for girls in developing nations. And the Catholic Charities fights poverty in the United States, supporting families and children with direct services. In all of these instances, people of faith stand united to help children.

Obesity in America is a children's epidemic and therefore also deserves a united response from the faith community. One in three children and adolescents is diagnosed as obese or overweight in this country. As a result, for the first time in modern history, children alive today could expect to live shorter lives than their parents.

Grounded in their respective beliefs, people of faith can unite together to advocate more effectively to address this problem. Collective numbers and voices are more powerful than work done in isolation. We can urge our lawmakers and national leaders to do more to combat childhood obesity in our schools: increase physical education, ensure nutritious meals are served and equip our neighbors and communities with the resources they need to make wise decisions for themselves and their families.

The goal for sustained, broad based change is a mechanism to make these best practices a reality in every school. The faith community should lead by advocating for a policy that creates healthy change while leveraging the strengths and resources of the faith community. A system that has been proven by research and experience to make schools healthier is targeted Coordinated School Health model.

Targeted Coordinated School Health is based upon a Center for Disease Control's model and focuses exclusively on nutrition and physical activity. The program puts a local health coach in every school district for a little more than a $1 per month, per child and has already shown impressive outcomes in Tennessee. In Tennessee, local faith communities play an important role with the Coordinated School Health program in creating healthy change through partnerships with local school districts.

National faith leaders are now actively working -- united -- to see the Tennessee success grow and spread nationwide. 33 national faith leaders ranging from the Southern Baptists to the Conservative Jews penned a letter to 49 governors asking them to consider implementing targeted Coordinated School Health model statewide.

The time has come for the faith community to present a unified front and promote a shared ministry to end obesity on behalf of children nationwide. Targeted Coordinated School Health is an issue everyone can agree upon and the faith community can lead this change.