ATLANTA - Building new sidewalks, taxing sugary sodas, and rethinking where new schools are built are among many ways of combating childhood obesity, according to speakers at a conference held here last weekend. Over 100 public health professionals attended the University System of Georgia's Childhood Obesity Conference held at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Global Learning Center.
"The obesity epidemic in this country is now widespread and we've got to find solutions to it," said keynote speaker William Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., who is director of the division of nutrition, physical activity, and obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A decade from now, the United States is expected to spend over $343 billion dollars on obesity-related health care costs if waistlines continue expanding at the current rate.
The conference gave educators, researchers and public officials a chance to learn about health care, research, and public policy initiatives seeking to ameliorate the problem of childhood obesity at state and national levels. Several groups were present at the conference. Georgia Tech, the Medical College of Georgia, Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of Georgia were represented, as well as local school systems and non-governmental agencies.
The conference introduced participants to funding opportunities and encouraged them to join forces to seek funding, implement programs, and evaluate their impact.
"It's important for all the community to be involved," said Marsha Davis, associate professor of health promotion and behavior at the University of Georgia. Obesity is a multifaceted problem, she said, and it can best be addressed by bringing about simultaneous changes in several arenas.
"If families could have healthy foods in their homes, if schools could provide healthy lunches and more opportunities for physical activity, that's what we could all do," she said. According to Dietz, costs associated with obesity have grown from about 6 percent to 10 percent of the national healthcare budget since 1998.
"If we don't come to terms with this epidemic it's going to ruin us financially," he said.
In 2018, the per capita costs of obesity is expected to be $1,425 per person, rising from $361 today, according to a http://www.fightchronicdisease.org/pdfs/CostofObesityReport-FINAL.pdf report released just days before the conference.
CDC recently published a list of recommendations that schools and communities can use to address the state's obesity problem. "We're very interested in changing the environment, and changing the policies that govern what children eat and how physically active they are," said Dietz. "For example, eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages from schools while at the same time, intake of fruits and vegetables needs to be increased in lunchrooms."
Some Northeast Georgia schools have already implemented many of the CDC's recommendations. Many use campus gardens as educational tools and as a source of fresh foods for students (see what Chase Street Elementary in Athens is doing Eating Healthy in School).
In Athens' Brooklyn neighborhood, a community garden has made the streets safer and provided fresh vegetables for residents (second segment in the series Crime Fighting Collards).
Individuals can also take steps to improve their own health even if they don't dig a community or family garden plot, Davis emphasized. "You just need wonderful fruits and vegetables, that's the kind of bounty of wonderful food that you can get in any grocery store, in any local farmers market (Bishop Park Farmer's Market Closing Time)," Davis said. "We have it all across Georgia."
To find out more about what Northeast Georgians are doing to support sustainable agriculture and eat healthier, check out the other segments in the Harvesting Health series.
Report by Jordan Sarver
This article and video were originally published on the WNEG-TV web site on Thursday, 3 December 2009.
From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway