10/28/2010 05:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Obesity Epidemic: One Way to Encourage Healthier Eating

New York City has an obesity problem and it's hurting our children. Almost 40% of New York City public school children in kindergarten through eighth grade are overweight or obese. Obesity rates are substantially higher in low-income neighborhoods like Harlem and Corona, Queens where the percentages of obese or overweight children are 48% and 51% respectively. It is telling that consumption of sugar-packed drinks is consistently higher in those neighborhoods.

This is why Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson are seeking permission from the USDA to ban the use of food stamps to buy sugar-sweetened drinks in NYC as part of a government effort to battle obesity. They requested this ban for two years in order to study whether it would positively impact health. This ban would apply to beverages that have more than 10 calories per 8 ounces. (A 12-ounce soda, for example, contains 150 calories and the equivalent of 10 packets of sugar.) The ban would not apply to fruit juices without added sugar, milk products and milk substitutes.

In the United States, soda and other sugary beverage consumption has more than doubled over the past 30 years. That has paralleled the rise in obesity, leading many scientists to place part of the blame for increased waistlines on soda itself. Studies have suggested that soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup may contribute to the development of diabetes, particularly in children. In New York City, one in every eight adults has diabetes and poor New Yorkers are almost twice as likely to have the disease as wealthy New Yorkers. These numbers are particularly troublesome when children are considered. Drinking one sugary beverage per day puts a child at a 60% higher risk of becoming obese.

A recent study by the American Journal of Epidemiology states that citywide obesity increased from 20 to 22% between 2003 and 2007. However, in affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, Chelsea and the West Village, the rates remained around eight percent. Meanwhile, in lower-income neighborhoods the rate was higher. In 2003, East Harlem was the only neighborhood with an obesity rate higher than 30%. By 2007 there were seven neighborhoods with rates that high including three in the Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Rockaway in Queens and northern Staten Island.

Designed to ensure low-income people can afford nutritious food, food stamps are a significant tool for helping working families stretch their budgets. Yet, unfortunately, under the current food stamp program, public funds are helping pay for the beverages that play a large role in rising obesity. The USDA estimates that 6% of food stamp benefits nationwide are used to buy sodas, which means an estimated $75 to $135 million in benefits are spent each year in New York City on soda. In addition, the public ends up paying the bill for treating some of the health problems that result from obesity. Currently, obesity-related illnesses cost New York state residents almost $8 billion each year; that's $770 for each household. There are 22,300 New York City residents hospitalized each year for obesity-related diabetes and almost half of those live in low-income neighborhoods.

This is a problem that needs to be addressed. Cutting or limiting soda consumption is a good step towards improving health and fitness. There are other ways to address the problem as well.

Proper nutrition is crucial, especially for growing children. Having access to locally grown fruits and vegetables can greatly improve the health of a community. That's why United Way of New York City's food programs already require soup kitchens and food pantries to limit beverages to skim milk and 100% fruit juices, and mandate expenditures of at least 15% on fresh produce. United Way also operates Local Produce Link which is a public-private partnership that connects farmers with low-income neighborhoods to provide fresh produce to emergency food programs.

Other programs also help to increase access to fresh produce. For example, New York City's Green Cart program offers low-income residents a selection of produce -- the carts only sell raw fruits and vegetables and are set up in specified "underserved" neighborhoods in all five boroughs. Another example is the city's Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program , or FRESH, which has been approved in order to help develop stores that sell a full range of foods with an emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables and meats because many low-income neighborhoods are underserved by grocery stores offering healthy food options.

Exercise is another important component of personal health. There are some great programs designed to encourage fitness, particularly by targeting children. New York Road Runners (NYRR) has implemented a successful program into New York City schools called Mighty Milers. This program introduces children to the healthy habit of walking or running for fitness. NYRR lets students set personal goals and record their distances in an online database. Mighty Milers keeps students interested by letting them earn incentives for reaching milestones.

Another organization working to promote youth fitness is the National Football League with their program NFL PLAY 60. In partnership with the American Heart Association, United Way and other national partners, they're encouraging kids to get active and play for at least 60 minutes each day. The program is implemented at the grassroots level through NFL's in-school, after school, and team-based programs with the goal of curbing childhood obesity.

Exercise and nutrition are both important components of healthy living and we can always do more to promote these habits. Encouraging food stamp users to engage in healthier lifestyles by banning the use of nutrition assistance on sugary beverages is good for our community. It's an easy way to address a serious problem that can have deadly results if we let it get out of hand. Paired with other efforts that increase nutrition education and encourage regular exercise, this is an excellent way to significantly reduce the obesity epidemic that is taking over so much of our country. We can work together to reverse this trend by educating the public about proper fitness and nutrition and by making it easier for everyone to make healthier choices.