One in three U.S. children is considered obese or overweight, and it’s easy to see why. Many children ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven hours a day in front of a computer or television screen, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Walking or biking to school isn’t safe or close enough for children in many communities. Low-income families often don’t have easy access to fresh food and opt for cheaper fast food. Hectic family schedules prompt many families to eat in shifts or down fatty snacks on the way to school or work. Add high-sugar celebrations at many schools, and even health-conscious parents might find their children consume upwards of 30 cupcakes a year.
Clearly, our economy, culture, social lives and surroundings aren’t helping children be healthy, says Barbara Fiese, PhD, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the university’s Family Resiliency Center. But efforts to get children moving more and eating more healthful foods are under way, says Fiese. She is part of a multidisciplinary project in Champaign to fight childhood obesity by improving school lunches and adding bike routes, among other strategies. The Monitor spoke with Fiese about her anti-obesity campaigns and how families and psychologists can help.
Your center is involved with a community-wide effort to tackle obesity in children. What’s the group’s strategy?
The program, C-U Fit Families, is made up of 25 different organizations across Champaign-Urbana, including television and radio stations, the school system, and a couple of hospitals. Over the last year and a half, leaders from these groups chose four areas to focus on: school lunches, safer routes to school, targeted advertising to children and promoting shared work-life balance for families.
So far, we’ve been able to bring the national leader of the Safe Routes to School program here to speak about how to set up these programs. This is a great national program that fosters groups around the country to have “walking school buses”: You have two or three adults who volunteer to walk through the neighborhood and pick up kids along the route. The kids are safe and chaperoned, and getting daily exercise.
We’ve also been able to get the director of the transportation office to look at getting more community bike routes, and we’re working with the child-care centers to improve some of the food services they have. I just learned that one of the elementary schools is working on changing their school lunches next year.
It’s not a traditional research effort, but it’s cutting across agencies and organizations that maybe wouldn’t work together otherwise.
What are the specific areas that policymakers should address in regard to obesity in children?
At the state and federal levels, policymakers can direct their attention toward making it easier for families to choose healthy foods. That comes from promoting small grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods, promoting local foods in neighborhoods and allowing the use of LINK cards — electronic cards offered by the federal government’s subsidized food program — in farmers markets.
At the federal level, it’s about tackling targeted food advertising to children. Food content labeling is another area that needs more attention. You need to know what you’re actually ordering at fast-food outlets. But that topic is gaining ground and has been included in the recent health-care legislation.
How can businesses help make a difference?
Employers should provide more flexible work time, for one. One of the things behavioral science research has shown is that families who share four or five meals together each week have children who eat healthier, eat more fruits and vegetables, and are at less risk for developing obesity. One of the barriers for families sharing a meal together is long work hours and hectic schedules. Spend 20 to 30 minutes together as a family sharing a meal, and you can reduce risk for all sorts of health problems, including obesity.
Some of your research at the Family Resiliency Center is aimed at very young children. Why target that age group?
We are seeing a rise in obesity ages 2 to 5. That is quite worrisome because if you have a steep trajectory of weight gain in the preschool years, it portends a lot of poor health outcomes, including musculoskeletal problems and risk for diabetes and asthma.
Our Strong Kids research program includes 10 investigators from five colleges to look at early markers of unhealthy weight gain in preschoolers. We are doing everything from DNA collection to geo-mapping of grocery stores to look at all the multiple contributors to unhealthy weight gain. We are sampling more than 400 families in counties throughout Illinois, and we hope to follow [their children] from ages 2 to 7.
What will you do with those findings?
We’ll develop education and intervention programs. For example, we are talking with child-care providers to determine their understanding of healthy eating and how messages can be consistent between home and school. We’ll be able to use our interviews with parents who receive food subsidies to identify strategies that may help or hinder promotion of healthy eating. We’ll also take our evidence to the public by preparing public service announcements on some of the barriers to sharing family meals.
Some of your center’s work targets specific communities, such as Spanish-speaking families.
Yes, we have a popular multi-department nutrition program called Abriendo Caminos [“Clearing Paths”], funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is a six-week nutrition, education, folk dancing and cooking program for Spanish-speaking families. We are trying to take traditional foods and tailor them to more healthy eating habits and incorporate traditional folk dancing.
We focus the one-hour nutrition lessons on “mas,” or the types of things you need to eat more of, like fruits and vegetables, and “menos,” or what you should eat less of.
Are there roles for psychologists here, even those who don’t consider child obesity their area?
Psychologists need not take this on as a part of their clinical practice, but they can take their skills as excellent communicators to the community. Join a task force in your community to examine the foods served at day-care sites and schools; ask that your children’s school fund drives be non-food-related. You can work with the local farmers’ market to start an education program for children and families by visiting Local Harvest website. Contact Safe Routes to School and start a walking school bus program.