Bold Action Needed to Combat the Childhood Obesity Crisis
Childhood obesity is a topic that is very important to me as a person and as an elected official. It is not just an issue of concern. It is a crisis, and there is no magic bullet that will serve as a solution. It is a multifaceted, complex issue that will require government, businesses, schools, and parents together.
One in four middle school and high school students in Santa Clara County, ages 13-17, are overweight or obese. For some populations, such as Latinos and African Americans, those numbers are one in three. More than half of adults in Santa Clara County are overweight or obese.
Children who are obese after age six have a greater than 50 percent chance of being obese as an adult. Obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. If this trend continues, this will be the first generation of children to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Childhood obesity is not just a health issue. It is an economic issue as well. Obesity costs the taxpayer millions of dollars in related healthcare costs. Employers are effected through lost productivity and increased insurance costs. The cost of obesity in Santa Clara County are estimated at $420 million in healthcare and $496 million in lost productivity.
Even though there is a lot of new work happening through governments and regional partnerships, we are a long way from solving the childhood obesity crisis. While we must continue to educate, increase access to healthy food, and make physical activity a bigger part of city living, bold actions are also needed to draw attention to this problem. Because the effects of childhood obesity often seen later in life, too few people are motivated to act now. Sometimes new and even controversial ideas can help move the discussion along.
An exciting idea that we passed in Santa Clara County was a first-of-its-kind ordinance I authored to require restaurants to meet minimum health requirements for its kids meals that are linked to toys or other incentives. It has often been referred to in the media as the “Happy Meal Ban,” but it is not a ban at all. Rather, it gives parents a tool to resist the millions of dollars spent on marketing unhealthy meals to their children.
Most of us instinctively know that fast food is bad for you. When you look at the data, it is even worse. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for children 6-8 years old is 1500 calories, 58 grams of fat, and 1800 mg of sodium. If you look at a basic kids’ meal of a cheese burger, small fries, and 12-oz soda, it has 750 calories, 30 grams of fat and 895 mg of sodium. One meal would provide 50% of total daily calories, 52% of fat and 50% sodium.
Fast food restaurants sold more than 1.2 billion meals with toys to children in 2006. In 2006, restaurants spent at least $360 million on toys. Toy giveaways are estimated to be the second highest child-directed expenditure by the industry, after TV advertising. In a study of children’s meals at restaurants, 10 of 12 of the highest calorie meals came with toys.
All this money is being spent to influence children when they are young and their taste buds are developing. In essence, these toy offers get kids hooked on the taste of fast food at an early age. Santa Clara County’s ordinance ensures that food provided along with toys meet minimum health standards.
A few months after Santa Clara County passed its ordinance, San Francisco passed an ordinance of its own, and New York City is considering one as well. Now the restaurant industry is taking notice. Recently, Jack in the Box announced that they will no longer offer toys as part of their kids’ meals. McDonald’s— the fast food chain that started the kids’ meal toy craze—is making changes of their own. They announced that they will be reducing the serving size of french fries and including fruit in all of their Happy Meals.
The awareness being raised by Santa Clara County’s ordinance is helping the restaurant industry and parents to confront the need for change. We have made some good first steps, but much more still needs to be done.