03/01/2013 06:21 pm ET Updated May 01, 2013

The 'Skinny' on Children's Health

On Thursday morning, in conjunction with the First Lady's Let's Move! tour, Mayor Emanuel launched a new initiative that will help our students get healthier: the Healthy CPS Action Plan. Developed with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), this plan provides 60 concrete, innovative and actionable strategies that will make a difference in the health and lives of our young people.

But before I outline the new plan, we need to take a closer look at the challenges our city is facing. CDPH recently released the report "Overweight and Obesity Among Chicago Public Schools Students, 2010-11", which details how our students are faring in the national epidemic of obesity. There are some promising signs in the report, but it also makes it clear that there is still a great deal of work to do, which is why the new Healthy CPS Action Plan is so important.

For example, the new report tells us that 20 percent of our CPS kindergarteners are obese. This is troubling, but if you look closer you'll see the promising signs: According to previous data, 24 percent of similarly aged children were obese in 2003 and 22 percent in 2008. These numbers mirror trends in other large cities, and we're hoping to build on this to make a sustained difference moving forward, because 20 percent is still unacceptable.

Rates among older CPS students face challenges, too. The latest data show that 29 percent of CPS sixth graders are obese. If we dig deeper, we see discrepancies between ethnic groups, with black and Latino students hardest hit. Again, this is similar to trends reported nationwide. For example, in the U.S., 27 percent of Mexican-American adolescent boys are obese versus 17 percent of white adolescent boys. Among adolescent girls, twice as many blacks are obese when compared with whites of the same age (29 percent vs. 15 percent, respectively). Clearly, we must strive to close these gaps while working to bring our overall rates down.

Everyone knows that it's unhealthy to carry around excess body weight, but why exactly? When compared to their normal weight peers, children who are overweight have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and other physical and psychological ailments. Chances are that if you are an overweight child, you will become an overweight adult, further exacerbating these problems and taking years off your life span.

Because we want our students to live healthier and longer, Chicago is investing heavily in our young people, including the launch of the new Healthy CPS Action Plan. The plan outlines real strategies, some of which our students will start to see immediately.

We're working with the park district to provide increased space in our parks for physical activity for 150,000 students. We're doubling the number of school-based gardens, increasing access to fresh foods while providing new opportunities for hands-on science education. We're implementing standardized curriculum for physical education across all grade levels. We're expanding access to free oral health exams and dental cleanings to all students. We're ensuring students receive a free vision screening and access to free eyeglasses, if needed. And so much more!

This is all in addition to the other great work the City is already doing to improve the health of our students, like working with corner stores in close proximity to our schools to reduce access to unhealthy food and to provide more nutritious alternatives, constantly improving nutritional standards in our cafeterias and expanding the school day to provide more class time and a guaranteed recess for every elementary school student.

With more than 400,000 kids enrolled in the CPS system, chances are yesterday's news will certainly impact our community and, ultimately, the future of Chicago.

The First Lady knows this, which is why Chicago has been recognized by the National League of Cities as one of 12 cities making significant progress in reducing childhood obesity through her Let's Move! initiative,dedicated to solving childhood obesity within a generation.

We're doing our part, but we can't do it alone. We all have a role to play in the health of our children. Reach out to us on Twitter (@ChiPublicHealth) and let us know the healthy decisions that you are making for your children!