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Community Leaders Discuss Obesity Risks for Poor Children

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The recent report on the nation's skyrocketing obesity rates made the task of the Kalamazoo County Champions of Healthy Kids all the more urgent after its leaders learned that the major determinant of a family's health is its social and economic status because it dictates the opportunities and resources available to them.

Champions, which promotes healthy eating and daily exercise for children throughout Kalamazoo County, was begun last year by the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo together with a coalition of community leaders from schools, local businesses, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations, and government. They met recently for their second annual summit at Western Michigan University.

"Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention" revealed that two-thirds of American adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese, according to the Institute of Medicine report. Obesity is associated with the high cost of chronic diseases (e.g., Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, stroke, cancer and dementia), disability and even death.

The neighborhoods people live in, their income, educational levels and race determine their health status more than other factors, said Linda Vail, director of Health and Community Services with Kalamazoo County.

"Until we address our socio-economic issues, we'll only put band-aids on our health," she said.

For example, of the 5,000 babies are born in Kalamazoo County each year, half of them are on Medicaid with access to only three physicians compared to the other half whose families have private insurance and access to 27-30 (full time equivalent) physicians, according to Denise Crawford, CEO of the Family Health Center.

This doesn't include treatment for the newborns' older brothers and sisters, she said. Moreover, every private practice is closed to Medicaid pediatric patients.

Social and cultural attitudes and food consumption habits also determine people's ideas about what's good and what's desirable, said Crawford. She illustrated that with a story about her aunt's cookbook that prescribed cooking with "good lard."

"No lard is good lard," she said.

Obesity rates among young people from ages 2 to 29 is monumental with Hispanics at 38.2 percent, African-Americans at 35.9 percent and white Americans at 29.3 percent, she said.

By 2050, over half of the U.S. population will be people of color. If health trends continue, that means that 38 percent of the population will be obese.

None of us is doing it right, said Crawford and focusing only on communities of color will yield only marginal results.

Michigan has 2.5 million adults and .4 million children who are obese and the impact on the state economy is particularly devastating costing billions in health care that can reach $12.5 billion by 2018. Currently, the United States spends $2.2 trillion for health care with 75 percent of that treating chronic conditions.

That's one reason why Governor Rick Snyder has advocated the 4x4 Plan, whose goal is to "make every Michigander healthy and productive living in communities that support health and wellness with ready access to an affordable, patient-centered and community-based system of care."

The plan advocates four key healthy behaviors: diet, exercise, annual physical examinations and the avoidance of tobacco.

Unfortunately, while the governor called for $2.3 million to fund the 4x4 Program, the legislature pulled it.

Efforts to change this "public health crisis" are long term and convincing people to change their ways is difficult.

"We don't have 50 years to transform ourselves into healthy, productive individuals to help create a vibrant Michigan economy," said Vail. "We must find ways to accelerate adopting healthy norms and values."

Ron Fuller, superintendent of K-RESA discussed the progress various schools in the county are making to get children engaged in healthy exercise and to eat nutritious foods. The result is that attendance is improving, academic performance is increasing, and obesity rates are declining.

Vicksburg schools stand out and it all started with one teacher who decided to do something about the children's rising obesity and overweight rates, he said.

"This is a lesson for everyone," said Fuller. "It starts with the commitment of a few dedicated people and the [district] superintendent's buy-in."

Successful schools are using a physical-education-for-life approach, he said, where they do small things like take five minutes of dancing in the hallways once school begins in the morning.

Proper nutrition through school lunches can play a role, too, by getting kids to eat more fresh fruits, vegetables and a variety of menu choices to substitute the foods they typically eat that are heavy with sugars and fats.

Summit participants identified several major barriers to progress, however, such as "connecting the dots" between the resources available and the people who need them. Some people don't have transportation to farmers markets or grocery stores where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Others may not know how to cook, clean or use these foods because they are used to eating fast food, processed and prepared foods. The state legislature's budget cuts to many successful health programs is also an impediment.

Participants also agreed that overcoming these barriers can happen through collaboration with others who are focused on making sure that all people in Kalamazoo County have access to fresh food. That includes encouraging more teachers to take on projects that promote fitness and nutritious eating, educating parents and making better use of existing resources.

"You're not alone in this," said Chris Crowell, co-owner of Gazelle Sports, to participants. "There are plenty of wise, talented, passionate, caring people in the room now. Connect with them. This is something we can take on when we open our hearts, our hands, our minds and make the next generation healthier than ours."

The summit was made possible by a generous grant from Fifth Third Bank and the U.S. Center for Disease Control.