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Jewish Journal

Wanted: A General in the Obesity War

by Brian Albert

November 17, 2005 | 7:00 pm

Obesity is the fastest growing health threat in this country, currently on track to overtake tobacco as No. 1.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30 percent of American adults older than 20 (more than 60 million people) are obese. The percentage of youths ages 6-19 who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980 to more than 9 million.

The lifetime risk of Type II diabetes is headed toward 30 percent for boys and 40 percent for girls, putting these kids at greatly elevated risks for debilitating health problems, like kidney and heart disease, amputation and blindness.

Locally, more than half the adults in Los Angeles are either overweight or obese, while 21 percent of the children are overweight, with an additional 19 percent at risk of becoming overweight.

And while Jews are far from immune, obesity is not an equal opportunity affliction -- African American and Latino communities have obesity rates triple that of whites, and poorer Americans are almost 50 percent more likely to be obese than wealthier Americans.

The seriousness of the problem has begun to attract considerable attention both inside the public health community and beyond. Our state and local governments have been active in responding to this epidemic -- from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Obesity Task Force and his tireless cheerleading for more physical activity to the Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) healthy beverage initiative, which notably brings healthier food and drinks to schools without diminishing snack revenues.

The nonprofit sector has also mobilized through a variety of projects that empower kids to lose weight by making smart diet and lifestyle choices, and through innovative organizations like Students Run L.A., where young Angelenos train for the L.A. marathon. Forward-thinking foundations have pitched in some of their considerable resources to fight obesity.

Meanwhile research/advocacy organizations like the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College have expanded their missions to address obesity, noting that many of the same families at risk for hunger are also at the greatest risk for obesity.

So why the need for another alarmist editorial when we already find some of our best and brightest organizations fighting obesity? The answer lies in the dual nature of the epidemic.

At one level, obesity is an extraordinarily uncomplicated problem. According to Dr. Francine Kaufmann, head of the Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, obesity is on the rise because we simply take in more calories in food then we expend in energy. Yet finding a correspondingly simple solution has proved maddeningly difficult.

Reversing the tide requires taking on, in a coordinated manner, the variety of factors responsible for the epidemic, from unhealthy diets, insufficient exercise, reliance on automobiles, inadequate nutrition education, excessive junk food, scarcity of fresh produce to many other complicated, interrelated causes related to the way we now live. And while many of these causes are being addressed individually, success in fighting this disease requires a strategy that coordinates the present multiplicity of approaches.

To introduce this higher level of strategizing, we are proposing the creation of a joint county, city (and, if possible, LAUSD) obesity coordinator. The office would be modeled on the city's AIDS coordinator's office created by Mayor Tom Bradley, but would include the county to take advantage of its public health and health care resources and the LAUSD as one of the country's largest educational institutions, while also leveraging the bully pulpit available to the mayor.

Following the successful AIDS coordinator model, the obesity coordinator would have various responsibilities:

• Education/Public Health. The coordinator would create an education campaign, leveraging the city and county media infrastructure, as well as the school system and a prevention program targeted at encouraging healthier food and lifestyle choices.

• Policy/Coordination. The obesity coordinator would spearhead the development of county-citywide obesity policies to ensure that governmental and nongovernmental responses to obesity are adequately coordinated.

• Analysis. The coordinator would analyze the efficacy of existing programs and facilitate long-term studies of the current approaches to identify and consolidate around the most successful ones.

• Programs. Following on the pioneering work of the food policy organization, California Food Policy Advocates, we would encourage the obesity coordinator to explore creative solutions, including programs to introduce green grocers into neighborhoods that currently lack access to quality fresh produce. These programs would require minimal capital (possibly leveraging new markets tax credits and other innovative financing sources) to help create and capitalize local businesses that sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

We believe that the Jewish community has a role to play in the campaign to appoint an obesity coordinator and to win the battle against obesity. Generating the political will to create an empowered obesity coordinator will require pressure from many communities, including our own.

In addition, many existing institutions can participate in this fight, from Koreh L.A., The Jewish Federation's reading in public schools program that could incorporate obesity education curriculum, or Mazon, the anti-hunger effort, which could expand its mission to confront the obesity epidemic through its network of food banks.

Ultimately, this is a complicated and long-term problem that will require the kind of effort deployed against AIDS and smoking.

The appointment of an obesity coordinator would enable more effective cooperation and strategic management of our resources and hasten the day when we turn around this burgeoning affliction.

Brian Albert and Tanya Bowers are members of the New Leaders Project, which was founded in Los Angeles in 1990 and links Jewish values with a commitment to civic activism.

This op-ed piece is the first of three by members of the New Leaders Project (NLP), a Jewish civic leadership training program of the Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee. Participants researched three pressing issues -- education, housing and health -- and presented their proposed solutions to a panel of community experts.

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