The media had a field day recently with the proposal from Ontario’s Healthy Kids Panel to ban marketing of junk food to kids under 12. Sadly, this covereage missed a number of the panel’s crucial recommendations that would address the biggest contributors to childhood obesity.
Childhood obesity rates are increasing across Canada. Over a quarter if children and adolescents aged 12-17 are overweight or obese and over the past 25 years the rate of young people aged 12-17 who are overweight doubled, while obesity tripled. For kids, obesity can lead to a lifetime of poor health, so by tackling childhood obesity now we can lead kids toward a healthy adulthood.
But, as a recent Wellesley Institute report showed, not all children are affected equally by the burden of obesity and poor health. Children who grow up in poverty, who have inadequate housing or food, or who are socially marginalized, are more likely to be obese and are disproportionately affected by its associated health problems than children who grow up in families that are better off.
If we really want to tackle childhood obesity, we must address these underlying social determinants of health. The Healthy Kids Panel picked up on these themes in a number of areas.
Starting all kids on the path to health
To reduce childhood obesity, we need to focus on early childhood development to ensure that all children have the best opportunities for good health, and creating a strong network of prenatal supports and early childhood supports is an important starting point.
The Healthy Kids Panel made important recommendations in these areas, including focusing on early childhood development by enhancing primary and obstetrical care before and during pregnancy, ensuring that prenatal support is accessible and affordable, support for breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and building health promotion into well-baby and well-child visits.
Focusing on the accessibility and affordability of supports is critical. Accessibility means that supports are available when and where people need them, including outside of standard business hours, and affordability means ensuring adequate funding so that low income doesn’t prevent anyone from accessing the services that they require.
Changing the food environment
The place of junk food in our food environment is an important discussion, but we need to avoid losing sight of larger food security issues in the debate about advertising to kids. In addition to its controversial recommendations in this area, the Panel also recommended providing incentives for food retailers to develop stores in food deserts – neighbourhoods that do not have access to high quality and affordable food – and to develop these stores as part of community hubs to support broader child health through recreation and strong social cohesion. They also recommended establishing a universal student nutrition program for all publicly funded schools to replace the current patchwork of programs and creating a school nutrition program for First Nations communities.
These recommendations are an important first step. But we also need to look more deeply into how our neighbourhoods are designed to ensure that we provide the infrastructure and opportunities for people to use active transportation and public transit, and that inequitable barriers to recreation, like user fees, are eliminated. Given that poorer kids are at greater risk of obesity, encouraging kids to use local recreation facilities won’t help if they can’t afford to use them.
Creating healthy communities
Also encouraging is that the Panel acknowledged the role that communities and neighbourhoods play in reducing childhood obesity. They recommended adopting a coordinated community-led approach to developing healthy communities for kids, making schools hubs for child health and community engagement, speeding the implementation of the Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy, and continuing to implement the Ontario Mental Health and Addictions Strategy.
The Panel’s focus on reducing child poverty is important. Neighbourhood income is linked to childhood obesity, so redoubling efforts to reduce poverty will be essential. The Province can make progress immediately in its upcoming budget by implementing the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction’s recommendations to increase the minimum wage, change social assistance rules to allow people to keep more of their earned income and child support payments, and restore the delayed increase to the Ontario Child Benefit. These simple steps would make an immediate difference to families living in poverty and would give kids greater opportunities for good health.
Childhood obesity is about more than junk food. To achieve its goal of reducing childhood obesity by 20 percent in five years the Province needs to look beyond the headlines and address the social and economic barriers to good health faced by many of our marginalized kids. The Panel appropriately called their report No Time to Wait. We can’t afford to wait if waiting means a lifetime of poor health for our kids.