Leadership for Healthy Communities Childhood Obesity Prevention Summit

 •    Good morning and thank you for this opportunity to address the first Childhood Obesity Prevention Summit.  It is a pleasure to be among leaders on the issue of prevention and treatment of childhood obesity. I want to thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for putting together this two-day summit to help bring greater awareness to the rising epidemic of childhood obesity.

•    Many of you have traveled far distances to share your first hand experiences and successes in preventing and treating childhood obesity.  Thank you.  Through your work, you are bringing a voice to the numerous children who suffer from obesity or diabetes or maintain unhealthy and physically inactive lives. Through events like this today, we can bring greater national awareness to childhood obesity, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, affects 25 million American children and adolescents.

•    From 1980 to 2004, a mere 24 year period, the rate of childhood obesity in America has more than tripled!  We cannot idly sit back and allow our children to become part of these statistics.

•    There are two things I believe we must act on in order to stop childhood obesity from becoming the next epidemic facing this country. The first is the importance of encouraging healthy and active lifestyles.  The second is to ensure that foods served in our schools meet minimal nutritional standards.

•     As we all know, healthcare costs are rising in this country and much of this is attributable to avoidable factors like poor dieting and inactive lifestyles. According to the Milken Institute Report, An Unhealthy America, modest reductions in these avoidable factors will lower obesity and reduce cases of illness by nearly 15 million over the next 16 years, which would cut $60 billion in healthcare expenditures per year and could increase national productivity, our GDP, by $254 billion by 2023.

•    The cost of childhood obesity to taxpayers is also significant; Children treated for obesity are roughly three times more costly to the American health care system than children of average weight.  Research indicates that the average annual cost to Medicaid for an average weight child is $2,400.  In contrast, this same child, if overweight, would cost Medicaid $6,700.  This equates to $3 billion in costs to Medicaid every year.  

•    As the rate of childhood obesity continues to rise, so will these figures. I believe we must focus on prevention and ensuring that children and their parents are aware of the importance of maintaining healthy lifestyles to not only reduce obesity rates but also to control runaway spending on healthcare costs.

•    Many U.S. businesses have instituted “Wellness Initiatives” to prevent rising healthcare premiums for their employees – some of these include on-site workout facilities, organized employee walks, and on-site health fairs or screenings.

•     Clearly these “Wellness Initiatives” are available to one segment of the population, adults, but what “Wellness Initiatives” are available to children? In fact, the first programs to be cut in our schools are physical education programs.  We must not forget about our children when it comes to an overall “wellness” strategy for our nation.

•    I also believe in the importance of proper nutrition and exposing our children to foods that meet minimal nutritional standards. I am proud to be a lead sponsor of The Child Nutrition, Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act introduced by Senator Harkin. This bill would require updating the definition of foods of minimal nutritional values based on recommendations from scientific and nutritional experts. All foods sold in schools, including vending machines, would be required to meet these updated nutritional standards. This is the first step in providing children with the necessary nutrition to eat healthy and live a healthier lifestyle.

•    In the Mat-Su Valley of Alaska, back in October 2007, students at the Su-Valley Middle and High School boycotted the menu at their cafeteria saying “the price of lunches are too high and the quality too low.” The kids actually said they want a new menu because the food being served is not healthy or filling. A school lunch consists of a pre-packaged hot entree, one vegetable, a piece of fruit, dessert and a carton of milk. In my state of Alaska, we don’t have an agriculture industry like in Iowa or Nebraska. But we do have an abundance of fish. Why can’t school lunches in Alaska consist of fish instead of a pre-packaged hot entrée? I believe that states should be able to provide natural fruits, vegetables and foods in school meals and I will continue to advocate for this.

•    I want to again thank each of you for your efforts to help combat childhood obesity and its detrimental impact on the future health and wellbeing of our children, not to mention the harmful financial effects on healthcare costs to this nation.

•     And I would like to again thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for putting together this first summit of its kind to bring government and private sector leaders to the table to discuss childhood obesity. I look forward to our continued efforts together to keep our children active, healthy, fit and nutritiously fed.