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A Healthy Future
for New Jersey's Kids
Dr. Fred M. Jacobs
By Fred M. Jacobs, M.D., J.D.
Health & Senior Services Commissioner
girl jumping with hoop
It is critical that our children have an active lifestyle. If we do nothing, by the year 2010, nearly 50 percent of U.S. children will be overweight.

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions not only in New Jersey but nationwide.

In New Jersey, more than 60 percent of adults are overweight or obese. And the percentage of children between the ages of 6 and 12 who are overweight has more than doubled in the last 30 years. The rate has tripled among adolescents.

Childhood obesity is the biggest threat to the lifelong health of children in New Jersey and nationwide.

Excess weight due to poor diets and inactivity is the nation’s second leading cause of preventable death after smoking.
Several obesity-related conditions—such as Type 2 Diabetes and high blood pressure—once seen almost exclusively in adults—are now being seen with increasing frequency in children.

Children are eating too much fast food, high in calories and fat. They are consuming too many giant, sugary soft drinks and not getting enough exercise. As a result, there has been a ten-fold increase in childhood diabetes in the last 20 years.

A 2004 study conducted jointly by the Department of Health and Senior Services and the Department of Education found that 38 percent of sixth graders were either overweight (20 percent) or obese (18 percent). It is critical that our children have an active lifestyle. If we do nothing, by the year 2010, nearly 50 percent of U.S.

Children will be overweight. If we fail to motivate our children to lead healthier lifestyles, they could be the first generation to live shorter and sicker lives than their parents.

Our children are at grave risk of lifelong, chronic health problems including heart disease (caused by high blood pressure and high cholesterol), asthma, arthritis, cancer, depression and social discrimination.

Overweight children and teens are more likely to become obese adults. Physical activity and dietary patterns, once established early in life, will often persist into adulthood, so we must start early to promote a healthy lifestyle. Childhood is the time to form good eating habits that can last a lifetime.

In addition to threatening the health of our children, this epidemic threatens our economy. If we do not reverse this epidemic, our world economy will be less competitive and health care costs and disabilities associated with obesity will continue to grow. It costs more than $2.3 billion a year to pay for medical problems related to obesity in New Jersey.

Nationwide, obesity will result in 22 percent more disabled adults, 25 percent more people confined to nursing homes by 2020 and health care costs for the elderly will rise by 20 percent to treat obesity-related conditions, Rand researchers report.

Tremendous efforts to curb this epidemic are already underway in New Jersey and across the country. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest U.S. foundation devoted to improving America’s health, has committed to spend $500 million over five years to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity by 2015.

The League of Municipalities has partnered with the New Jersey Healthcare Quality Institute to administer the Mayors Wellness Campaign, which has been launched in more than 200 communities.

The program provides mayors with a “toolbox” of workable, user-friendly, and inexpensive programs that they can put to work in their communities.

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The WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides coupons to mothers with young children to purchase Jersey Fresh fruits and vegetables from community farmers markets and supermarkets.

State government is also doing its part. The state is investing tens of millions of dollars every year in town and city parks to make sure our children have a safe place to exercise and play.

Governor Jon Corzine has a $74 million initiative to improve pedestrian safety statewide including $15 million for the Safe Routes to School program, which helps communities create safer walkways, bikeways and street crossings near schools.

This fall, all New Jersey public schools are required to implement the most comprehensive school nutrition policy in the nation, which promotes fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk and whole grains and bans food of minimal nutritional value, including candy. Elementary schools can offer only milk, water or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices and at least 60 percent of the beverages offered by middle- and high-schools must be 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices.

There was such enthusiasm for the Model School Nutrition Policy that, as of December of 2006 (10 months before the deadline), 57 percent of schools had complied with the standards.

The standards, developed by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, include nutrition education and promote physical activity from a young age. The nutrition policy complements other efforts by the department to encourage healthy diets among children. The WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides mothers of young children with coupons to purchase Jersey Fresh fruits and vegetables from community farmers markets and supermarkets.

The state Board of Education has also revised the School Curriculum Standards to increase the emphasis on nutrition and fitness, including healthy ways to get fit and maintain a proper weight.

And the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) has created a new Office on Nutrition and Fitness to coordinate its obesity prevention and nutrition and fitness programs and to improve access to active recreation, promote healthy communities and encourage breastfeeding.

The Department of Personnel and the DHSS are sponsoring a Working Well NJ Initiative to encourage public employee wellness by providing up-to-date health information and links to other sources.

Early prevention of obesity is considered to be the most promising intervention. A healthy diet and regular exercise—30 minutes a day—are key to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. We have to denormalize inactivity. We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Parents need to take an active role and set an example by planning active family outings, walking their kids to school and providing healthy foods. Students can promote healthy lifestyles among their peers, drink more water and limit soda, TV and computer time.

We have to change behavior and behavior change isn’t easy. Ask anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or quit smoking. However, the state’s efforts demonstrate that behavior can be changed. Many said the School Nutrition Policy would not survive school districts’ reliance on vending machine income from soda and candy distributors. Instead, those machines remain, with healthy drinks and snacks taking the place of less nutritious items.

To reverse this epidemic, it will take all parts of society working together—elected officials, government, the schools, parents, kids, health care professionals, community organizations and faith groups—and it will take a sustained effort over decades.

This fall, I will be taking this message on the road from Sussex County to Cape May to ask everyone to join me in ensuring a healthier future for the children of New Jersey




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