Michelle Obama’s Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity released its findings yesterday. It’s encyclopedic in scope and has something for everyone — from school lunch, to sugar taxes, to veggie subsidies, to dietary guidelines, to obesogenic chemicals. Even farm-to-school programs get a prominent shout-out. The Letsmove.gov blog breaks the 70 recommendations down into these categories:
1. Getting children a healthy start on life, with good prenatal care for their parents; support for breastfeeding; limits on “screen time”; and quality child care settings with nutritious food and ample opportunity for young children to be physically active.
2. Empowering parents and caregivers with simpler, more actionable messages about nutritional choices based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans; improved labels on food and menus that provide clear information to help make healthy choices for children; reduced marketing of unhealthy products to children; and improved health care services, including BMI measurement for all children.
3. Providing healthy food in schools, through improvements in federally-supported school lunches and breakfasts; upgrading the nutritional quality of other foods sold in schools; and improving nutrition education and the overall school environment.
4. Improving access to healthy, affordable food, by eliminating “food deserts” in urban and rural America; lowering the relative prices of healthier foods; developing or reformulating food products to be healthier; and reducing the incidence of hunger, which has been linked to obesity.
5. Getting children more physically active, through quality physical education, recess, and other opportunities in and after school; addressing aspects of the “built environment” that make it difficult for children to walk or bike safely in their communities; and improving access to safe parks, playgrounds, and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities.
I recommend the blog Obamafoodorama for a detailed look at the report’s contents and Jane Black of the Washington Post’s piece for a good perspective on what the administration’s approach to reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act might tell us about its real commitment to addressing obesity aggressively.
However, what struck me in particular was the overall goal of the anti-obesity effort: A return of childhood obesity rates* to the 1972 level of 5%, down from 19.6%, by 2030. The report targets a real cut of 2.5% in obesity rates by 2015 and another 5% by 2020. But like the administration’s proposals to cut carbon emissions, the obesity benchmarks leave an awful lot of work to be done in the final decade — by these numbers the obesity rate will need to drop by well over half from 2020 to 2030.
The report, indeed the whole approach to childhood obesity, is pure Obamaism — not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. It goes something like this: Take a comprehensive, patient approach to a problem. Put government at the center of any solution but avoid assigning blame or relying too heavily on radical legislative fixes. Work within existing power structures, whether Congress or corporate America. When you negotiate, do so, as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post put it, by extending an open hand which “makes it easier for people to see if the other side has made a fist. It both increases the likelihood of a deal and increases your chances of winning the PR war if a deal falls apart.”
Is a problem as complex, multi-faceted and far-reaching as childhood obesity amenable to this approach? I have to say the idea of putting off most of the improvement until even a reëlected President Obama is out of office — and when probability tells us we’re likely to have a Republican president — doesn’t inspire much confidence.
And while the report offers intermediate benchmarks, there are no “triggers” of any kind. There are certainly suggestions that government must act if industry won’t follow the report’s recommendations, especially regarding processed food and marketing to children. But it’s not so much a threat as an intimation. Sadly, that’s not the same as intimidation.
Still, I want to agree with the CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who declared the report “a landmark.” But a true landmark really only deserves its status once it withstands the test of time. With the obesity epidemic in full swing and a generation of Americans likely to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents, the clock is ticking. We need to start checking off a lot of those 70 recommendations well before 2015 if we’re to have any hope of success.
*For the record, the task force is using a slightly different definition of obesity than is common. They define it as a “BMI greater than gender- and weight-specific 95th percentile from the 2000 CDC Growth Charts” rather than simply a BMI greater than 30.