Prevalence of childhood obesity has increased greatly in the recent years, so much so that the number of children considered overweight by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has nearly quadrupled among children aged 6-11 years old (Cawley, Meyerhoefer, and Newhouse, 2007, p.506). Many members of the public, media, and congress have declared childhood obesity as a major public health concern, considering it to be an “important cause and consequence of wider disparities in health” (Freudenberg, Libman, and O’Keefe, 2010). Director of the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the CDC, Dr. William H. Dietz, went as far as to say “This may be the first generation of children that has a lower life span than their parents” (Roberts & Wilson, 2012).
Though it is evident steps are needed to be taken to help protect the health and futures of our youth, those with the most power to actually make a visible, long lasting environmental change are the most reluctant to do so. Policymakers have alternate interests in finances that water down their attempts to take charge. Sadly, often times playing the social problems game takes precedence over the more genuine social problems work. As a Washington Post article so boldly states “In the political arena, one side is winning the war on child obesity. The side with the fattest wallets.” (Roberts & Wilson, 2012)
Proposals that frame childhood obesity as being an inevitable result of increasing environmental surroundings by unhealthful foods are too often neglected by government officials more willing to frame childhood obesity as an individual problem. Indeed it is more convenient to claim providing freedom of choice to individuals who are capable of making their own decisions, emphasizing self regulation, and freeing themselves of responsibility to their nation to lead in financially beefy actions.
This essay seeks to demonstrate that childhood obesity should no longer be considered an individual cause stemming from lifestyle choices which can be changed through minor solutions such as education in physical activity and nutrition. Unfortunately, this social problems ownership has become the taken-for-granted frame for this problem (Loseke, 2003, p.69). Childhood obesity really is a social problem which is a direct result from our environment, social structures emphasizing fast, unhealthy, frankly JUNK food which is readily available in any given neighbourhood and continuously marketed through all mediums to increase profits to some select wealthy individuals.
I will stress that the only solutions met by this pressing issue have been solely symbolic solutions which have been prematurely praised as they are false attempts to appear loyal to the public, communities, and school systems, while truly remaining loyal to the corporations, who some may very well be held entirely accountable.
Within this paper the exploration of three chosen symbolic solutions to date will include: American Government’s distribution of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report: Strategies for Increasing Physical Activity Among Youth, the national law passing of requiring restaurants with 20 or more chains to provide calorie information on menus and menu boards, and lastly, the enhancement of PE requirements for school aged children.
The distribution of said guidelines is reported to be important by reviewing “the evidence on strategies to increase youth physical activity and make recommendations… and to communicate findings to the public.” (Rodgers, 2012, p.10) This report focuses on five settings, but in reality only offers strategies for 3 of them. Two settings (Home and Family, and Primary Care settings) received no proposed strategies to increase physical activity among youth, and focused only on areas requiring further research (p.7).
Those settings which did receive proposed strategies were quite obvious suggestions which doubtfully would have any significant impact on physical activity among youth. One such suggestion is to “provide teachers with appropriate training” (p.5). Although it must be noted that this is not a report distributed solely to decrease obesity among youth, it is distributed to increase physical activity among youth, which is not the same, though admittedly similar.
On the webpage this guide is provided, a number of other arbitrary tools can also be found. Webinars on online nutrition information, fact sheets, blogs, access to printable posters, and more. Educating the public, educating the parents of youth, and the youth themselves of course is important. At what point however will it be supplemented by restrictions on marketing of food and beverages to youth, which this guideline reports is estimated at a whopping $10 billion per year, but shows no indication of wanting to reduce or restrict this, and can only suggest counterbalancing with media campaigns directed to offset these unhealthy images (Rodgers, 2012, p. 3). One article is more forward in summarizing
“Despite this widespread recognition of negative impact of marketing unhealthy foods, the practice continues unabated.” (Harvard School of Public Health, 2012)
Mandated menu labelling of calories in some American jurisdictions was passed in 2008, requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more facilities to post calorie information next to each item on their menus and menu board (Kuo, Jarosz, Simon and Fielding, 2009, p.1680). This new law was backed by evidence that “eating fast food has been shown to increase caloric intake and the risk of becoming obese” (Harvard School of Public Health, 2012). As an alternative to restricting what is sold in these fast food chains, restricting advertising of these products, or perhaps even zoning restrictions on how many fast food restaurants were permitted to be within a certain range of schools, this new law appears to be the most liberal of solutions, and the most beneficial for the companies selling these high calorie foods.
Findings from a health impact assessment are as follows: “mandated menu labelling at fast food and other large chain restaurants could reduce population weight gain, even with only modest changes in consumer behaviour.” (Kuo, Jarosz, Simon and Fielding, 2009, p.1683) As promising as this is, it is followed by a stronger and more realistic assessment stating “ if nonobese restaurant patrons were more likely to order reduced calorie meals than were obese patrons, the impact on the obesity rate could be less than what we reported”.
Because there was no study conducted on the weight of those opting for calorie reduced items, it is difficult to say if this solution is beneficial to the target audience, obese people in these jurisdictions. If changes are being made that is great, but there is no evidence to date to support this influencing the rising issue of obesity. It is just another means of essentially saying that the government is willing to educate on the food being provided and it is the choice of the individual, to consume or not consume.
One solution offered by government recognizes that with the majority of youth enrolled in schools, school is an ideal place to provide much needed physical activity to students (Rodgers, 2012). In implementation, many state policies require schools to “have a PE unit requirement that constrains students to spend a minimum amount of time in PE class” (Cawley, Meyerhoefer, and Newhouse, 2007, p. 508).
A study evaluating the effectiveness of such policies revealed that, naturally, a required PE unit is correlated with a higher probability that the student participates in PE (Cawley, Meyerhoefer, and Newhouse, 2007, p. 511). Although this is clearly a positive outcome of enforcing requirements among youth to enroll in PE classes, this same study goes on to say that “a requirement is correlated with students reporting fewer minutes spent active in PE”(p.511). Yes, you read that correctly, specifically 15.1 fewer minutes active in PE for boys, and 3.1 fewer in PE for girls (p.511-512).
In conclusion, this report sums up the opposing information by stating that “curriculum development is not significantly associated with the amount of time spent active in PE”. As such, the implementation of these programs sounds a lot more effective in theory then it is in practice.
All three of these solutions offered by government are certainly steps in recognizing that childhood obesity is in fact prevalent in our society. These solutions also claim that something can be done to reduce the level of harm to children’s health, and that actions should be implemented in correcting this epidemic. Essentially childhood obesity is a recognized social problem in our society. Unfortunately because the victims, (obese children), are politically powerless individuals, proposals to decrease the harm attributed to them have been, and will continue to be symbolic.
Sadly, effort from interest groups with good intentions can be overshadowed by the social problems game of politics. This concept is not lost in an article posted in The New York Academy of Medicine which reads as follows:
“…private interests generally have more resources and skills than public health reformers to achieve their policy goals, and are more successful in resisting changes than advocates are in implementing them. These structural barriers are a powerful deterrent to reducing childhood obesity. Creating cities where health rather than business concerns take precedence will require new approaches to governance and democracy.” (Freudenberg, Libman, and O’Keefe, 2010, p.761)
It appears as though, for now, the social problems game of proposing symbolic solutions for childhood obesity is being accepted by audiences. Since Loseke claims that “the goal of social problems game is persuading audience members” (p.51), government officials, the players, are succeeding.
Cawley, J., Meyerhoefer, C. and Newhouse, D. (2007), The correlation of youth physical activity with state policies. Contemporary Economic Policy, 25: 506–517. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-7287.2007.00070.x
Fredenberg, N., Libman, K., O’Keefe, E. (2010), A tale of two obescities: The role of municipal governance in reducing childhood obesity in New York city and London. Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 87:5 doi:10.1007/s11524-101-943-x
Harvard School of Public Health, (2012), The obesity prevention source toxic food environment. Retrieved from: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/
Kuo, T., Jarosz, C., Simon,P., Fielding, J. (2009), Menu labelling as a potential strategy for combating obesity epidemic: A health impact assessment. American Journal of Public Health, 99:9 doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.153023
Loseke, D. (2003), Thinking about social problems. New York: Walter de
Robert, J., Wilson, D., (2012, April 27), Special report: How Washington went soft on childhood obesity. Reuters. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/
Rodgers, A., (2012), Physical activity guidelines for Americans mid-course report: strategies to increase physical activities among youth. US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from: http://health.gov/paguidelines/default.aspx