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Signs of Progress in the Fight Against Childhood Obesity

Karen Eisenberg is a senior communications consultant in National Public Relations and Communications at Kaiser Permanente and the mother of two teens.


Kids in the Eastside neighborhood of Riverside, California, often gather at Bordwell and Bobby Bonds parks to play basketball, swim or swing. When they get hungry, they visit the parks’ vending machines where, until recently, the main offerings were sodas, chips and candy bars.

That’s no longer the case, thanks to a partnership between Riverside’s Parks, Recreation, and Community Services Department and Kaiser Permanente’s HEAL (Healthy Eating, Active Living) Zones initiative, a multifaceted effort to build healthier communities. Bottled water and healthy snacks have replaced sodas and junk food, and last year, the city council unanimously adopted healthier food and beverage guidelines for all city vending machines, meetings and community events.

That’s just one example of the kind of collaboration that contributed to a small but significant decline in childhood obesity rates in Southern California between 2008 and 2013, after several decades of increasing childhood obesity statewide.

“Kaiser Permanente has worked with a wide variety of local partners to make it easier for its members and other young people in Southern California to lead healthier lives,” said a recent policy brief from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Called Signs of Progress, the report highlights noteworthy examples from across the country of communities that have implemented innovative strategies to help kids eat well and get moving.

Success stories from across the nation

Approximately 17 percent (or 12.7 million) of children and adolescents in the United States ages 2 to 19 years are obese, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These young people are at increased risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease — and of remaining obese as adults.

But there are signs of progress in the fight against childhood obesity. After increasing for decades, obesity rates are down 5 percent among children ages 2 to 5 and have leveled off among young people ages 2 to 19.

Here are some of the other success stories highlighted in Signs of Progress:

  • New York City child care centers are now required to offer healthier foods, improve nutrition education, increase physical activity and limit screen time.
  • Lincoln, Nebraska, started a “Rethink Your Drink” public service campaign, encouraging healthier beverage options.
  • Philadelphia has improved access to healthy foods in underserved areas by offering incentives to food retailers.

Creating a culture of health in Southern California

Community engagement is an essential component of Kaiser Permanente’s efforts to build healthy communities and reduce childhood obesity.HealthyPicksScal

“The people who live in a community are the ones who know best what challenges they face, whether it’s access to fresh, healthy foods or the need for safe places to run and play,” said Roberta Tinajero-Frankel, Community Benefit manager for Kaiser Permanente Southern California. “They can also identify the kinds of changes that need to happen, whether that’s improving a park, creating sidewalks and bike lanes, or making over a corner store.”

Through the HEAL program, neighborhood youth and adults learn how to assess their neighborhoods and identify needed improvements. They also receive training in how to talk to community leaders, such as school board and city council members, to inform them of those needs.

One outgrowth of HEAL’s work is Activate Whittier, a partnership uniting schools, nonprofit organizations, and city and county agencies to combat childhood obesity. After Activate Whittier held a design contest for a “Healthy Picks” logo that was used in local convenience stores, participating retailers noted a marked increase in sales of healthier foods.

More work ahead

While celebrating the successes achieved in many communities, Signs of Progress called for a continued commitment to reducing childhood obesity.

“Childhood obesity disproportionately affects communities of color, and in communities with high levels of poverty, families often lack access to healthy foods and beverages and safe places to be physically active,” the report noted. “More efforts are needed to implement broad, far-reaching changes that support healthy eating and regular physical activity.”

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