A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the obesity rate among children in North Carolina has leveled off, with no significant change between 2008 and 2011. That’s good news, and a testament to the work being done by organizations across the state.
However, that news also means that 15.5 percent of North Carolina’s children – well over the national average of 14.4 percent – are obese. That is still far too many children who are at increased risk for elevated cholesterol, insulin and blood pressure; sleep apnea; bone and joint problems; and social and psychological problems. And it is far too many children who are more likely to become obese adults. More than half of children who are obese by 6 years old will be obese adults, at risk for a lifetime of chronic health problems.
The obesity epidemic is unfortunately now reaching our state’s youngest children.
Over the past 30 years, the obesity rate has more than doubled among children ages 2 to 4 in North Carolina. In addition, roughly 3 out of every 10 low-income children 2 to 4 years old are either overweight or obese.
These startling statistics demand further attention. On Wednesday, representatives from more than 70 organizations across the state, including N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos, will come together for a summit to address the issue of early childhood obesity. Led by the North Carolina Institute of Medicine, the summit is an extension of a recent NCIOM task force report on combating obesity at its roots – children from birth to age 5.
The report contains a series of new recommendations that would bring together parents, child care providers, health professionals and the community to promote healthy eating and active living in young children.
The task force recognized that there was no easy solution for this complex problem, no silver bullet. Instead, our focus was on leveraging existing resources, building partnerships and using science to inform policy. It is no simple task and no single organization or new policy will create the change we need. Instead, success requires doctors and child care providers, policy makers and parents to work together.
Collaborative projects such as Shape NC are at the heart of efforts toward healthier early childhood in NC. Shape NC is a three-year effort spearheaded by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation and the North Carolina Partnership for Children that uses Smart Start partnerships across the state to address childhood obesity by focusing on child care centers.
One of the child care centers participating in Shape NC is the Friendly Avenue Christian Academy in Guilford County. Since starting the program, the center staff has redoubled its efforts to provide nutritious meals, encourage physical activity and promote outdoor learning. The center has planted its own garden, where the children experience growing food and enjoy the fruits of their labor! As result of the changes, kids are more excited about learning and exploring the outdoor world. The center is more focused on the development of the whole child. In this context, many staff members have been inspired to make their own healthy lifestyle changes. The children are eating new foods, and they are taking healthier habits home to their families.
This common-sense change and leadership will make the difference for our children. The NCIOM recommendations build on this success, representing the next generation in ideas and innovation to address childhood obesity.
Kathy Higgins is president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. Olson Huff, M.D., is chairman of the board for the NC Early Childhood Foundation.