September is the month when the temperatures start to cool and we send our children back to school. It is the perfect time to take stock of our kids’ physical health, which not only impacts their future health as adults, but also their ability to learn right now.
Over the past couple of years, numerous organizations across King County have been working tirelessly to encourage healthy living. Obesity and its resulting chronic conditions persist. Data show that one in five of King County children are now considered overweight or obese. By 2030, the rates of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and obesity-related cancer are expected to increase exponentially in Washington.
When one begins to look for the root of the problem, it becomes clear that one of the biggest identifiers of obesity and its related illnesses is your ZIP code. The best example of the association between ZIPcode and health is a recent study released by Gallup-Healthways that surveyed the body mass index (BMI) of adults in 189 metro areas. Washington state had the distinction of claiming a high spot on both the least and most obese cities list: Bellingham was the fourth least obese, and Yakima was the fourth most obese city in America.
Apparently, health organizations are not the only ones to notice this trend. A Rudd Center study on marketing found that soda companies specifically target low-income areas. This was true across all forms of marketing, whether billboards or TV commercials. Even more troubling, television marketing isn’t just targeted to low-income families — the younger the audience, the more often commercials appear during programming.
It’s clear that our community is up against an immense challenge that costs King County as much as $500 million a year in health care. More importantly, what we do for our children now will impact their whole lives.
Some changes have already begun to take place and make an impact. A few recent examples include the Southwest Youth and Family Services and the Auburn YMCA. They both increased the amount of education their families receive on making healthy beverage choices. Another solid example would be the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. It saw a need for healthier options for snacks and has partnered with a vending machine company that provides healthy refreshments.
Of course, these solutions are great for communities with functioning centers or neighborhoods with streets that are safe enough to walk. As the ZIP codes show, however, it’s our struggling communities that are hardest hit by the obesity epidemic. It’s now clear that successfully tackling obesity requires more than just education. We need to align our government policies with public funding to create healthier choices. Our children need better school food, play facilities that allow them to exercise and sidewalks safe enough for them to walk. These changes require our political leaders to make specific choices about where and how to invest in our communities.
One approach to finding new revenue has been the idea of implementing a tax on soda. While controversial, this approach has a number of benefits. For starters, soda has no nutritional value, and cutting back on even just one soda a day for a year can result in weight loss up to 20 pounds. It also helps hold accountable the corporations that use unhealthy marketing to target children in disadvantaged communities. This tax could create revenue for real solutions to the obesity problem. New revenue can then be invested in the places hardest hit by poor health.
Creating a new tax is never easy, and while a number of cities have considered this idea, it has not yet been enacted into law. Such efforts have been met with corporate opposition; soda companies have spent millions of dollars to fight these positive changes. Often corporate campaigns distort the truth and provide false or confusing information to sway voters.
It’s clear that our communities will struggle to maintain good health, unless we act.
Please join us at the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition (copcwa.org) along with our 52 member organizations and make this school year even healthier than the last.