Among our community’s more silent and less-discussed problems is childhood obesity.

Calling everything such as homelessness, lack of affordable housing, teenage vaping or lack of wildfire preparedness a “crisis” or “epidemic” tends to make us numb to yet another set of underlying statistics, call to action or request for funding. So before we call our local existence of childhood obesity an epidemic, we’ll let you decide by citing a few facts.

Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

Overweight and obesity among our children has tripled over the past few decades. In Sonoma County 16% of all preschool-aged children are considered obese. By the time we measure obesity among seventh graders, we find 37.7% are obese. More than 75% of these obese young people become obese adults. Obesity, which leads to diabetes, heart disease, cancers and chronic illnesses, is even more prevalent among lower income families. (Sonoma County has 60,000 low-income households, or 40% of our total population.) Obesity can shorten life expectancy by seven to 20 years, depending on use of tobacco and other unhealthy habits.

Need more facts? According to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, childhood obesity burdens Sonoma County’s economy by as much as $436 million a year in services, lost productivity and other impacts. County schools are estimated to lose $6.4 million a year due to obesity-caused absenteeism.

So, we probably should add childhood obesity to our Sonoma County Top 10 Crisis List, right next to teenage vaping, adult opioid abuse and lack of local mental health services. Some of our epidemics like homelessness and lack of affordable housing seem impossible to solve. But behavior-based plagues like tobacco use or poor diets look easier to attack.

Childhood obesity is caused when 22% of our preschoolers drink sugar sweetened drinks every day and very few households serve a healthy diet of five daily servings of fruit or vegetables. Obesity is enflamed when too many children spend hours in front of TV and other screens and only minutes in physical exercise. According to the county’s Community Health Needs Assessment report, only 35% of our seventh graders meet minimum physical fitness standards.

All these statistics would be much worse without the many actions already mobilized by our public health agencies, healthy community consortiums, community-based health clinics and school programs. The numbers detailed above tell us that more needs to be done.

“We need to get a grip on this. As parents, we are giving our kids a death sentence,” said Debbie Mason, executive director of the Healthcare Foundation of North Sonoma County, after attending a recent meeting on the topic. “It’s one thing to be an adult, make those choices and live with the consequences, but to make those choices for your kids and sentence them to this unhealthy life is criminal.”

Those are strong words for a stern problem and community challenge. Childhood obesity is not just about drinking too many sodas, eating too many chips and candy or not exercising.

“The modern America of obesity, inactivity, depression and loss of community has not ‘happened’ to us. We legislated, subsidized and planned it this way,” said Dr. Richard Jackson, a former director of the National Center for Environmental Health.

Lots of our children live in “unwalkable” or unsafe neighborhoods where they can’t bicycle or visit a playground. It’s easier to find a McDonald’s than a farmers market, especially in our lower income areas.

This does not sound like the Sonoma County and hometown picture we want. Lots of good people are working to make this picture better. It takes lots of resolve, patience and willpower to change bad habits into healthy ones. It takes small daily reminders and it takes billboard-sized community alerts, too.

Money always helps and families earning a “living wage” could afford healthier choices, quality foods and expanded opportunities for their children. Better wages would help with all our other Top 10 crises, too, come to think of it.

 -Rollie Atkinson


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