04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The First Lady & the Childhood Obesity Crisis

One of the biggest public health crises our country has ever faced is finally getting serious attention.

During the State of the Union address Wednesday night, President Obama announced that First Lady Michelle Obama was going to take on the childhood obesity epidemic. I'd say the epidemic better watch out! It now has a worthy adversary.

Mrs. Obama is stepping up to provide leadership, recognizing if we don't take serious measures now, this generation of kids could be the first in U.S. history to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents. Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the past three decades. One in three kids is now obese or overweight. Children and teens are developing health problems that used to be only seen in middle age adults - like type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

But leadership alone will not fix all of the underlying factors that have contributed to the rise in obesity over the years. To have an impact, this leadership needs to be followed by a clear, comprehensive national strategy to combat obesity - including policies, programs, and funding - to result in real change. A national strategy is needed to define the roles and responsibilities for federal, state and local governments and promote collaboration among businesses, communities, schools, and families. We need to think about policy changes that could help make healthy choices easier choices for millions of Americans - including things like menu labeling and improving school lunches and physical education. We need resources - a dedicated funding mechanism for prevention and public health like the Prevention and Public Health Fund and a Community Health Center Fund proposed in the Senate health reform bill and a Public Health Investment Fund proposed in the House health reform bill - to support more community prevention programs, like walking programs and nutrition counseling. And we need to rethink health and consider the impact of all policies ranging from transportation (for instance, do our policies promote sidewalks and safe parks?) to agriculture subsidies.

It's great to talk about improving school meals, improving the quality of physical activity in schools, limiting screen time, and increasing the availability of affordable healthy foods in all communities, but unless we have real policy change and funding for programs, talk can turn into the public policy equivalent of empty calories.

Right now, we're failing our kids and resigning them to a future that isn't fair - and isn't their fault. There are many forces beyond individual control that are contributing to the rise in obesity rates. There are factors that contribute to obesity that are often beyond individual control. For starters, we're been kids feeding unhealthy school lunches and not letting them have enough time to be active during the day. Healthy foods are often the most expensive, making it hard for parents to help kids maintain a well-balanced diet. Marketing aimed at kids often promote high sugar and lower nutrition foods. Portion sizes and the use of salt and fat in foods have grown dramatically over the years. Many parents worry about the safety of parks and recreation spaces in neighborhoods, limiting their peace of mind to just let their kids go out to play. Activity time has to compete with the attractions of spending hours in front of the TV, computers, and video games. And, many parents work long hours and have long commutes, making it hard to have time and energy at the end of the day to be active with their kids.

Thanks to Mrs. Obama, the country is beginning to tackle the epidemic. We hope that this is just the first step. We know that effectively addressing this enormity of this public health crisis will require a marathon, not a sprint.