Though the majority of weight-loss and anti-obesity initiatives emphasize exercise and healthy eating, a seminar last month at The Children's Museum in Boston made me wonder if childhood obesity is more than just a matter of too much junk food and TV time. Is it -- along with crime, education, and access to medical care -- a social justice issue as well?
The seminar -- "SuperSize Me: The Social Context of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic" -- was presented by Dr. Elizabeth Goodman and Dr. Beth DeFrino, who discussed the ways that our social and biological environments affect our health. It's more far-reaching than one would think: With cash-strapped schools cutting recess and sports programs in order to make ends meet, children are spending more sedintary time at their desks and less time being physically active -- if they're at school at all. (Overweight or obese children are 59 percent more likely to miss more than two weeks of school than kids who are not overweight, a study shows.) And since school with low test scores are penalized (thanks in large part to No Child Left Behind), the kids who are most at risk for obesity are even less likely to get the activity they desperately need.
As I've mentioned before, the people who are least likely to need intervention are often the ones who are most likely to pay attention to educational campaigns, so more information alone isn't going to do the trick, (even if it is backed by the White House). But when social inequities are part of the equation, the problem becomes much more difficult to solve. Having to work to put food on the table trumps the hallowed family dinner hour, and if the only stores you have access to don't carry fresh produce -- or if it's prohibitively expensive -- you can't tout "eat leafy greens" as the solution.
"Property taxes, income taxes, sales taxes, not to mention the indirect product costs of regulations and taxes imposed on the food producers have driven the cost of food and the cost of living sky high," says Connie Kennedy, an educator in Alabama who blogs at The Business of Family. "These are social issues, and have nothing to do with whether the kids are begging for blue juice."
Parents, click through for more studies on the issue, and then tell me, what do you think? Is childhood obesity simply a parenting problem, or a social justice issue as well?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.