A set of 70 recommendations outlined today by First Lady Michelle Obama and an inter-agency Task Force on Childhood Obesity is so comprehensive, it ought to be considered a mandate for Congress. Fortunately, many of its action items are already manifested in existing legislation. And if Congress acts quickly on the proposed measures, Americans stand a real chance of reversing the obesity epidemic in the next generation.
Right now, we are experiencing the first generation in our history to potentially have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Two-thirds of adults and nearly one in three children struggle with overweight and obesity. Obesity is now among the country's costliest medical conditions, and taxpayers, governments and businesses spend billions on obesity-related conditions each year, including an estimated $147 billion in medical costs.
So how are we going to reverse the tide of this epidemic? Many of the proposals that are central to the President's Childhood Obesity Task Force report -- and which have been long-advocated by the Campaign to End Obesity -- are also reflected in the Healthy CHOICES Act, legislation introduced just last week by Rep. Ron Kind, and the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, spearheaded by Sen. Blanche Lincoln and awaiting action in the Senate.
Among the Task Force recommendations are:
"Pediatricians should be encouraged to routinely calculate children's BMI and provide information to parents about how to help their children achieve a healthy weight."
Indeed, as with other vital signs and risk factors, measuring body mass index (BMI) provides a quick and easy means of identifying an important threat to health (obesity). BMI should be treated like any other vital sign by patients, physicians and other health care providers. It should be measured and monitored frequently, including at each patient encounter, to help prevent the development of obesity or stop it from getting worse. And Representative Kind's legislation takes it a step further, providing for tracking and monitoring of BMI in public health coverage, public school-based clinics and maternal and child health services. It would also require BMI information to be provided in electronic health records for adults and children and in vaccination records for school-age children.
Additionally, the Task Force identifies that:
"Federally-funded and private insurance plans should cover services necessary to prevent, assess, and provide care to overweight and obese children."
The Task Force is absolutely right. For all the cost and risk associated with it, obesity has yet to be addressed as a disease that can be diagnosed by physicians, covered by insurance companies and included in federal and state prevention and treatment programs. It's hard to imagine that a child whose BMI exceeds the 95th percentile cannot receive a proper, specific diagnosis from her doctor or treatment from her health plan, even as she risks correlating conditions like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, depression and even premature death. However, new cases like this will continue to emerge until we improve the delivery of care for patients with obesity.
Congress and the health care community have an opportunity and an obligation to act. The Healthy CHOICES Act provides the right tools to help get Americans on the journey to a healthy weight, equipping doctors to diagnose and treat obesity and expand treatment and preventive services, including under Medicare, Medicaid, and SCHIP.
Next, the Task Force urges:
"Update Federal nutritional standards for school meals and improve the nutritional quality of USDA commodities provided to schools."
Our schools and federal food programs must be models of good nutrition, and -- given the extent to which they are a primary food source for so many Americans -- they must facilitate healthy eating. Federal food programs should improve the access and affordability of healthy foods in communities of need, and ensure that all foods sold at schools meet the USDA's nutritional guidelines. Sen. Lincoln's legislation realizes these principles, and moreover ensures that food served on school campuses "promotes student health and reduces childhood obesity," expands funding for nutritious meals and provides reimbursements for federal school lunches.
The Task Force also declared that:
"School districts should be encouraged to create, post, and implement a strong local school wellness policy."
In March, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously passes the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 out of committee, and right now it awaits action from Senate leadership to be brought to the floor. This child nutrition reauthorization would establish standing local wellness policies for local school districts, including policies for physical education and food marketing and advertising. Additionally, it would provide assistance to schools through a clearinghouse and assure adequate assessment and evaluation.
Lastly, among its recommendations, the Task Force laid out that:
"Active transport should be encouraged between homes, schools, and community destinations for afterschool activities, including to and from parks, libraries, transit, bus stops, and recreation centers."
We agree. When people don't have safe places to move or play, they're less likely to be active. Congress should continue to fund strategies to improve the nation's infrastructure in ways that encourage physical activity, and to support measures that promote physical fitness for children and adults.
The Campaign to End Obesity has long advocated for the coordinated Federal response to the obesity epidemic. We commend the Task Force for working diligently these last few months with the goal of reversing this crisis among children within a generation.
Now, the work begins. We need to make these recommendations a reality by making our voices heard on Capitol Hill. Call (202) 224-3121, and tell your Senator that you want to see Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 brought to the floor. You can also use that number to reach your Representative and encourage support of Representative Kind's Healthy CHOICES Act.
Realizing these steps through tangible legislation, perhaps this generation will not have to suffer its very frightening diagnosis.