10/05/2010 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Help Our Children Play

With the summer over and our children back in school, it's a good time to evaluate the state of education and healthcare as it relates to our children's future. But there's another building block that's too often overlooked -- play.

Play provides the physical activity that helps children grow up healthy. My neighborhood playground is where I learned to challenge myself and where I developed a healthy sense of competition and an enduring passion for sports. As a result, I played four varsity sports in high school and chose a university with both rigorous academic and athletic programs.

Play, then as now, is certainly about physical activity. But it's also about encouraging teamwork and stimulating creativity and confidence. Through collaborative play, I developed strength and coordination, interpersonal skills, a stronger self identity and an appreciation for tolerance and cultural diversity. Frankly, the lessons I learned from those early days on the playground have been essential to my success, as a student, as a young business person and today, as the chairman and CEO of a global corporation.

The First Family certainly understands the importance of play. Outside the West Wing of the White House is a playground for the president's daughters, where even the staff is encouraged to bring their kids.

That's a great example for our country, but it's the exception rather than the rule. According to a study commissioned by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that builds playgrounds in underserved U.S. communities, less than half of American kids actually have a playground within walking distance of their homes today.

And that's a pity, because research indicates that children who live near a park are less likely to be overweight than kids without a park nearby. Ensuring that our kids have safe places to play close to home can be a simple part of a solution to our nation's crisis of obesity.

And while one in five U.S. children is obese, nearly one in four experiences hunger. In fact, obesity and hunger often live side by side. "Food deserts," neighborhoods where families lack access to grocery stores with healthy food options, often are also "play deserts." So we must fight hunger and promote increased physical activity simultaneously. Fortunately, many community organizations, government agencies and companies big and small are doing just that by providing cash, food and education. But we must do more.

Through the collective power of volunteers, public-private partnerships and other forms of civic engagement, we can reverse the spread of hunger and obesity in this country and around the globe. For example, companies can sponsor new playgrounds in communities where "play deserts" exist. Local groups, working with these sponsors, can mobilize volunteers to come together on a designated day to build a playground as a community. This isn't just a dream. In fact we're doing this at Kraft Foods this week as we sponsor and help build more than a dozen playgrounds around the country, providing safe places to play for nearly 100,000 kids. During this week, we're mobilizing 14,000 employee volunteers in 50 countries to help local service organizations build stronger communities.

Individuals can stand up and make a difference too. You can help fight hunger in your own backyard by volunteering at a local food bank. Or find out where a playground is missing in your community and get friends and neighbors involved to build a new one. You can also help fight hunger globally through great organizations such as the United Nations World Food Programme, a wonderful organization dedicated to help feed more than 20 million children around the world who go to school hungry every day.

Play remains an essential part of my life, though I'm now more likely to be found on rollerblades or a tennis court than on swings and slides. Unfortunately, many children around the world and in our own neighborhoods aren't able to make play an essential part of their lives and don't have don't have access to healthy food either. Let's help change that. After all, we can all agree: every child deserves a healthy meal and a fun and safe place to play.

Irene Rosenfeld is Chairman and CEO of Kraft Foods. In October, 14,000 Kraft Foods employees in 50 countries are mobilizing in a "Delicious Difference Week" of community service, including the building of 13 KaBOOM! playgrounds in underserved U.S. communities. The company is also donating up to 500,000 meals to the U.N. World Food Programme through its corporate Facebook page.