Thursday, April 22, 2010

Well-Intentioned, But Misguided: The Obama Agenda on Obesity

In February, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her "Let's Move" campaign to end childhood obesity.

She drew widespread criticism by opening up this public conversation with a discussion of her daughters, whose weights she described as having been "off-balance." But thus far there has been limited discussion of the misguided direction her campaign has taken: pushing exercise and diet when there are significant structural economic and social issues at play in the challenges of keeping kids healthy, whether that means plump or thin. I've written about these issues elsewhere — on the Oxford University Press author's blog and in Social Text — but I was delighted to see these issues discussed in a more broadly distributed forum, by Ezra Klein in last week's Washington Post.

Klein points to the socio-economic factors associated with obesity — that communities with high rates of obesity are generally those with lower socio-economic status, along with limited access to healthy foods. What Klein doesn't mention, but implies, is that the evil twin of childhood and adult obesity is food insecurity.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (via,
  • In 2008, household food insecurity rose more than 35 percent due to the recession and increased unemployment.
  • More than 49 million people — including 16.7 million childrenlive in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in seven households in the United States (14.6 percent).
  • 5.7 percent of U.S. households experience hunger. Some people in these households frequently skip meals or eat too little, sometimes going without food for a whole day. 17.3 million people, including 1.1 million children, live in these homes — where they frequently skip meals or eat too little.
  • 8.9 percent of U.S. households are at risk of hunger. Members of these households have lower quality diets or must resort to seeking emergency food because they cannot always afford the food they need. 31.8 million people, including 15.6 million children, live in these homes.
Food security for a household means that all household members have access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Paradoxically, food insecurity — a shortage of high-quality food — is a likely cause of the so-called obesity problem. Food insecurity is an economic problem with medical, educational, and psychological outcomes, including what doctors call childhood obesity.

Now let's talk about the movement side of things, or exercise.

When was the last time you (if you're a parent) felt free to let your six- or seven-year-old child head outdoors, on their own, to run around and blow off some steam? Probably never, if, like most parents, you wish to keep Childhood Protective Services out of your family life.

A little more than three decades ago, growing up in a Los Angeles suburb, my siblings and I did just that — ran around all day in the summer, building forts, catching lizards, playing war games (yes, we were politically incorrect, both pre-PETA and non-pacifist), and generally creating a low-level of neighborhood havoc. Without the paranoia of a pedophile on every corner generated by a 24-hour news cycle, parents just a generation or two ago felt free to let kids run around with little or no supervision. And frankly, the no supervision was key because it maximized the kids' motion. What adult, short of an Olympic athlete, can actually keep up with the average seven-year-old?

If we want our kids to be healthy — whether that means lean or not — we need a world where food scarcity is a thing of the past and kids are safe to run around without constant supervision.

Childhood obesity is not a disease, it's a symptom of ongoing social and economic inequality. I hope the Obamas have the political will to focus on the less visible economic and social issues that actually threaten the health of our nation. If that were their agenda, you'd hear me saying "Let's Move" as well.

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