Richmond: At the Forefront of the Childhood Obesity Discussion

By April Suwalsky

“Childhood obesity isn’t some simple, discrete issue. There’s no one cause we can pinpoint. There’s no one program we can fund to make it go away. Rather, it’s an issue that touches on every aspect of how we live and how we work.” — First Lady Michelle Obama, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Legislative Conference, 9/15/2010

In early November, Richmonders will have the opportunity to impact policy by voting on two historic measures dealing directly with obesity. As someone with a community planning background and experience working at the local-ground-level here, I care deeply about the future of the city.

But the issue itself is even more personal for me.

You see, I was a fat kid. I was also an obese teenager and early-20-something young adult. I did not grow up in Richmond, but like all of us, the physical and social environment in which I was raised influenced — for better and for worse — my health and development.

Measure N is the so-called “Soda Tax,” while Measure O is the accompanying ballot item that recommends proceeds from Measure N be used for anti-obesity programs and local athletic fields. The soda tax is a penny-per-ounce tax that will be added to the cost of beverages with caloric sweeteners, such as soda and sports drinks.

Richmond resident Mark Torres, who is very active with Richmond youth sports and serves on the City’s Sports Fields Committee, says he is generally in favor of the tax as a source of funds to help prevent child obesity and improve athletic fields. At the same time, he’s concerned that taxing one type of item may create a slippery slope where any consumable could become subject to similar taxes.

I’ve heard the same sentiments from many in the community.

As Richmond roils in a hotbed of political debate, the region, state and country are watching the city as a case example. While Richmonders are all over the spectrum in their opinions, the community’s diversity — ethnic and political — make it a good place to test such initiatives. History here runs deep, but it is also open to innovation and change.

And that may be what is needed, given the growing health crisis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. Obese youth and adolescents are at higher risk of conditions linked to cardiovascular disease — such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol — as well as prediabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and emotional health issues.

In addition, health issues like childhood obesity disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color such as those in Richmond. Councilmember Jeff Ritterman, M.D., a cardiologist and champion of Measure N, stated in a PBS interview that in the city, “Fully a third of our Latino fifth- and seventh-graders and a third of our African-American fifth- and seventh-graders are obese.”

But my aim here is not to endorse specific ballot measures. Rather, I wish to engage the topic as a springboard from which to speak honestly — and from my own perspective and opinion — about the critical importance of addressing the obesity epidemic through prevention and intervention health strategies.

It was not until I became an independent adult that I was really able to take control of my own habits and change my environment.

Today I am a healthy weight, having lost about 30 percent of my total body weight when it was at its highest. I achieved this through rigorous regular exercise and changing my food consumption habits. I share this to offer that losing weight and getting healthy was hard, and it continues to be a struggle for me to stay on point. It remains as much a mental strength test as physical.

So where do we start? Prevention is ideal, but we can all do something, and the benefits of even small actions are cumulative and synergistic.

Stay active and be intentional about your health. Learn what your healthy weight is, and make yourself a promise to stay within five pounds of it. Find a form of exercise you enjoy and commit to it three to five days a week. Make informed choices about how you fuel your body. Have high expectations for yourself and others in your networks. Advocate for healthy environments in your community — for example, more pedestrian paths and edible schoolyards.

Learn more about national efforts to end childhood obesity, such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s ambitious “Let’s Move” campaign. In Richmond, support the work of great local organizations, such as Weigh of Life and Urban Tilth. Get involved with sports or fitness training, such as Richmond Swims or boxing at RPAL. Check out The Ed. Fund’s Out of School Time initiative.

To be sure, tackling obesity is a hard-fought battle: It was for me. Solid policies are one way to be proactive and move forward together. Richmond deserves to be a healthy city. So let’s stay ahead of the game, at the leading edge of the discussion.

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