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AAAS Town Hall Examines Childhood Obesity
Whole communities, not individuals, should be the targets for understanding and combating childhood obesity across the globe, researchers agreed at a special town hall forum at the AAAS Annual Meeting.
The forum speakers said the childhood obesity epidemic is really twin epidemics of poor nutrition and diminishing physical activity, driven by powerful economic and cultural forces. As the scientists reported, children will lose the battle against these pervasive forces unless they have the support of their schools, families and towns.
"We have to change the environment so it's simple for kids to make a healthy choice," said Steven Gortmaker, director of the Harvard Prevention Research Center.
Scientists, middle-school teachers, students and the public gathered at the 17 February 2008 meeting to learn more about the epidemics and what communities are doing to combat them. The attendees also did a little collective brainstorming about prevention strategies, participating in real-time electronic polls throughout the session moderated by Sally Squires of the Washington Post, who writes the nationally syndicated column "The Lean Plate Club."
Maura Devaney, head of the physical and health education department for Chelmsford Public Schools, just north of Boston, came to the event hoping to hear more about these strategies. "We have things we're taught to do for kids suffering from anorexia and bulimia, but we don't seem to have a firm grasp on obesity," she said.
Devaney and other school professionals attending the forum received free copies of Planet Health curriculum books, created by Gortmaker and colleagues to improve middle school activity and diet. The group also received interactive "dance mats" to accompany a new nutrition and fitness computer game called "SmartFoot," designed by Bob Hirshon, host of AAAS's long-running Science Update radio show.
The town hall began with a short video presentation on "Shape Up, Somerville," a community-wide intervention to prevent obesity in elementary school children led by Tufts University researcher Christine Economos.
From cooking classes for parents to walking "school buses," the project sought to address all the influences on obesity that students might encounter before, during and after school. The success of the intervention depended on everyone from the town's mayor to teachers, "because we need to think beyond individual behavior change," Economos explained.
But ambitious changes like this can draw resistance, as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino discovered when he recently pushed to removed soda and candy vending machines from the city's public schools. "It was the biggest political fight I ever had," he told the forum, recalling that parents and teachers were especially reluctant to give up the money generated by the machines.
And when children and their families do decide to make healthy changes, it can be tricky to stick with the new plan, admitted Mark Fenton, host of the PBS television series "America's Walking." Fenton said communities can make it easier for families to raise "free-range kids" with simple steps like painting bike lanes, using speed tables to slow traffic, and walking groups of children to school.
At a news briefing held before the town hall, W. Philip T. James of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said that re-framing the epidemic as a matter of poor nutrition could help explain the "bizarre circumstance" in which 287 million overweight children share the world with 177 million who suffer from malnutrition.
Children in the developing world are growing up now in the same kind of poor food environment as their peers in the United States and Europe, and James cautioned that the "highest priority for most international food companies is penetration of the Third World."
Ironically, this "standard diet" of high-fat, low-nutrition foods is becoming widespread at the same time that globalization could be opening up new worlds of healthy ethnic cuisines to children, said Shiriki Kumanyika, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who studies cultural influences on obesity.
The town hall was organized by AAAS under the auspices of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. More resources on childhood obesity, including the "Shape Up, Somerville" video, are at AAAS's special town hall Web site.
18 February 2008