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Minnesota must do more to address childhood obesity

Unlike other public health crises, childhood obesity could easily be addressed with a commitment to the cause by the state Legislature and the Department of Health. 

Kari Winning

In 2016, 27.7 percent of children in Minnesota ages 10 to 17 were considered overweight or obese. Those children face a higher risk of serious health conditions, including hypertension, hyperlipidemis, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, osteoarthritis, and some cancers. This is not a problem that arose overnight. Between 1980 and 2008, the number of overweight children in Minnesota more than tripled

With more than a quarter of Minnesota’s children having a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 85th percentile, one might ask what the future looks like. The majority of overweight children will be overweight or obese in adulthood. Most of the children already suffering will struggle their entire lives with obesity and the havoc it wreaks on their bodies. The impact is not only felt by those with personal struggles but also by family members who love and care for them. 

A costly collective struggle

It is also a costly struggle for everyone. Collectively, the total estimated financial costs of obesity in Minnesota were estimated to be $2.8 billion in 2006, a number that undoubtedly grows as health costs increase along with the obesity rates. 

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How could we have let this happen?  With such a significant impact on our children, the health of all Minnesotans, the quality of our workforce, and the financial burden to everyone, how could Minnesotans have allowed the childhood obesity problem to escalate to this level of severity?  The answer is simple: Minnesotans everywhere did very little, and in so doing, failed our children. The only step Minnesota has taken is the Safe Routes to School grant program, which aims at making it easier for kids to walk or bike to school. While this is a start, it is a small one and ignores the larger causes of childhood obesity.

While there was an effort made to address childhood obesity at the state legislative level with the formation of a Childhood Obesity Legislative Working Group, that group was an informal legislative group that met only four times during the fall of 2009 and the winter of 2010. The result of that group was to recommend the creation and funding of a Safe Routes to School grant program that would make it easier and safer for children to walk and bike to school, which recommendation was enacted by the state Legislature. Unfortunately, the group has not been active for approximately eight years and little has been done since that time to address childhood obesity. While their work has been a step in the right direction, it has ignored many of the causes of childhood obesity.

A need for state commitment

The causes of childhood obesity are relatively simple to identify: poor diet, lack of adequate sleep, a sedentary lifestyle, and lack of family and community support. Unlike other public health crises, childhood obesity could easily be addressed with a commitment to the cause by the state Legislature and the Department of Health. This is a struggle for which we already have the answer key. All of the causes must be addressed in order to reduce the rates of childhood obesity and to improve the lives of Minnesota’s children.

Steps must be taken toward increasing physical activity, and educating about the importance of a healthy diet is necessary to address the childhood obesity problem Minnesota is currently facing. To that end, the legislative working committee should be reinstated to address all causes of this crisis and remain committed to its mission until we see a real change in the numbers and in our children.

Kari Winning is an attorney and is also pursuing a master’s degree in health care administration at the University of Minnesota.

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