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Fighting Childhood Obesity in the US


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.

This week on our program, we tell about a new White House program to fight childhood obesity.

Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States. Almost one-third of American children are overweight or obese. Officials say the rate has tripled in teenagers and doubled in younger children since nineteen eighty.

Many American children and teenagers eat unhealthy foods that are high in fat and sugar. They eat many meals at fast-food restaurants. They eat too many snacks between meals. They drink too many sugary drinks. And they do not exercise enough.

In addition, some low-income areas do not have enough supermarkets where people can buy fresh and healthy foods.

In February, first lady Michelle Obama launched a campaign to fight childhood obesity. Her campaign is called "Let's Move." It aims to teach children about better nutrition and the importance of exercise.

Mrs. Obama says thirty million American children get the majority of their calories from foods they eat at school. The Obama administration is proposing to spend ten billion dollars over the next ten years to set nutrition rules for schools.

MICHELLE OBAMA: "What we don't want is a situation where parents are taking all the right steps at home, and then their kids undo all that work when they go to school with salty, fatty foods in the school cafeteria."

Obesity is linked to many diseases, including diabetes. Treatments for these diseases cost the United States almost one hundred fifty billion dollars every year. Doctors say eating right and exercising should begin at a young age so that children will not grow into obese adults.

Judith Palfrey of the American Academy of Pediatrics says overweight children have many health problems.

DR. JUDITH PALFREY: "Every day we see overweight toddlers who struggle to learn to walk or run. Overweight can cause our children respiratory problems. A youngster who develops diabetes in his teens may need a kidney transplant by the time he's thirty."

Last spring, Michelle Obama and a group of students planted a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House. Local students have been planting seeds, harvesting vegetables and learning about health and nutrition.

The organic garden provides food for the first family's meals and to feed hungry people in Washington. But Michelle Obama said the most important goal is to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruits and vegetables. In turn, the children will educate their families and communities.

Mrs. Obama says her idea is not to ban fun foods from a child's life. But she wants to balance hamburgers and French fries with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Another way to fight childhood obesity is to get children to exercise more. American children now spend an average of seven and a half hours a day watching television or playing with electronic devices.

Health experts say children should get an hour of active exercise every day. Michelle Obama urges children to go outside and play.

MICHELLE OBAMA:"So let's move. And I mean literally, let's move!"

Last month, Mrs. Obama welcomed almost one hundred local students to the first event in the South Lawn Series. These events will bring together local children, teachers and sports coaches. They will take part in sports, games and activities on the grounds of the White House.

The first event included trainers from Washington's professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey teams. It also included physical education teachers from Washington public schools. They showed ways for children to get sixty minutes of active play every day in their own backyards.

MICHELLE OBAMA: "So you guys are going to be the first example this summer of really encouraging kids to move. But we are going to need you, not just here today, but you're going to have to go home and take some of what you've learned here and teach your families and folks -- the other kids in your schools who haven't had a chance to come, and figure out how you guys can get other people in your lives moving."

In February, President Obama named the first-ever task force to combat childhood obesity. Last month, the members of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity presented its action plan.

Michelle Obama said for the first time the nation will have goals and measurable outcomes. She said these will help fight childhood obesity "one child, one family and one community at a time." The action plan involves public and private groups, mayors and governors, parents and teachers, business owners and health care providers.

The report presents seventy suggestions. They include: Providing good prenatal care, support for breastfeeding and good child care centers. Empowering parents and caregivers with simpler messages about healthy food choices. Limiting the marketing of unhealthy products to children. Providing healthy food in schools and improving nutrition education. Making it easier for everyone to buy healthier food at lower prices. Getting children to be more physically active in and after school and improving playgrounds in neighborhoods.

Michelle Obama spoke about the action plan when it was released last month.

MICHELLE OBAMA: "It's revolved around four main pillars. We've been working to give parents the information that they need to make healthy decisions for their families. We've been working to make our schools healthier. We've been working to increase the amount of physical activity that our kids are getting, not just during the day at school but also at home. And we're working to eliminate 'food deserts' so that folks have easy and affordable access to the foods they need right in their own neighborhoods."

Mrs. Obama said the plan includes ways to measure progress. For example, the plan sets goals to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables that children eat. It aims to decrease the amount of added sugar from many products that children eat.

The first lady said the plan also includes increasing the number of high school students who take part in physical education classes. It aims to increase the percentage of elementary schools that offer outdoor play time. And it aims to increase the number of children who walk or ride their bicycles to school.

Mrs. Obama said her "Let's Move" campaign has already started making progress by getting support from all areas of the country.

MICHELLE OBAMA: "And now, with this report, we have a very solid road map that we need to make these goals real, to solve this problem within a generation. Now we just need to follow through with the plan. We just need everyone to do their part -- and it's going to take everyone. No one gets off the hook on this one -- from governments to schools, corporations to nonprofits, all the way down to families sitting around their dinner table."

Sam Kass is the White House assistant chef. He helps cook food for the Obamas and their guests at the White House. Last month he announced a new program called "Chefs Move to Schools."

Professional cooks around the country will adopt a local school. The chefs will teach children about food, nutrition and cooking in a fun way. The chefs will work with school food-service workers, administrators and teachers.

Sam Kass said: "After hearing fifth graders cheer for broccoli, I know firsthand that chefs can have a huge impact on kids' health and well-being."

Last month, an alliance of sixteen major food manufacturers reacted to Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign. They promised to introduce healthier foods and cut the size and calories of existing products.

The alliance is called the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation. It includes Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods and PepsiCo. The sixteen companies make more than twenty percent of the food people eat in the United States.

Mrs. Obama said this is the kind of action that businesses need to take. She said she hopes more companies will follow the example they have set.

Our program was written by Shelley Gollust. Caty Weaver was our producer. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.


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