UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Obesity conference focuses on partnerships to improve health of California's children

– Whether it's the lack of safe playgrounds in an urban community or the abundance of sodas and high-calorie snacks available on school campuses, the growing girth of children in America has extended beyond a public health problem, say organizers of the 2005 California Childhood Obesity Conference. Statewide experts emphasize the need to mobilize a wide range of key players, including educators, park and recreation officials, health care providers and family members.

Forming partnerships and moving forward with workable solutions is the focus of this year's conference, scheduled for Jan. 9-12 in San Diego. The statewide conference, considered the largest such gathering in the nation, is organized by the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, the California Department of Health Services and the California Department of Education.

"It's not enough to tell children and parents to eat healthier and exercise more," said Patricia Crawford, co-director of UC Berkeley's Center for Weight and Health and cooperative extension specialist at the campus's College of Natural Resources. "We need to address some of the underlying factors that are presenting real barriers for the healthier lifestyles we're prescribing. That means getting help from city and community leaders, park and recreation officials, as well as educators and health care providers."

The conference sessions will tackle issues related to the increase in overweight and obese children from a variety of perspectives, including those of parents and families, policymakers, after-school programs and the healthcare industry. Sessions will highlight healthy eating and physical activity strategies.

Of particular emphasis at this year's conference will be low income populations, many of whom live in neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food or safe places to walk and play. Studies have shown that children from low income families are at greatest risk for being overweight.

"The combined epidemic of obesity, inactivity and diabetes have our children and grandchildren on track to live shortened lives, less than their parents, and the danger is greatest in the poor and among African Americans and Latinos," said State Public Health Officer Dr. Richard Joseph Jackson of the California Department of Health Services. "This epidemic must be turned around -- not next year or next decade, but now. Medical care won't do this -- only environmental and social changes can save our future."

First held in 2001, the conference brings together more than 1,200 educators, public health professionals and nutrition experts, as well as parents, business leaders and representatives from youth organizations.

This year's keynote speakers are Gerard Hastings, professor of social marketing at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and special adviser to the United Kingdom House of Commons Select Committee on Health; Dr. Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment; and Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Dr. Alex Kelter, lead for the California Department of Health Services' Nutrition and Obesity Prevention efforts, will highlight Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's vision of building communities that encourage walking, bicycling and other healthy activities.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who will also be speaking at the conference, emphasizes the need to teach young people healthy habits. "Students who are well- nourished and physically fit pay better attention in class and miss fewer school days due to illness," says O'Connell. "While there is no single solution to the problem of childhood obesity, California schools can play a very important role in helping children maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle."

The epidemic of childhood obesity has gained more public attention over the past several years as weight-related health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, increase among children and adolescents.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children and adolescents who are defined as overweight has more than doubled since the early 1970s. Results from the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), using measured heights and weights, indicate that more than 15 percent of children and adolescents ages 6-19 years are overweight.

And despite California's image of healthy eating and living, the state has the highest number of children who are overweight or obese. According to a 2002 report from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, some 26.5 percent of the children in California are overweight.

"California contains more obese children and spends more resources on the treatments of obesity than any other state in the country," wrote Schwarzenegger in a welcome letter to attendees of this year's conference. "Working together, we will be in a stronger position to curb California's obesity epidemic."

Supporting the governor's call to working together, California State Parks has joined the California Department of Health Services, California Department of Education and UC Berkeley in planning this year's conference. "Kids get locked into video games and junk food," says Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, "Our message is get outside -- go on a hike, go for a walk, ride a bike, swim in a lake or play soccer in your neighborhood park."

Support for the conference is being provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program, the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program and the California Obesity Prevention Initiative, in addition to Kaiser Permanente, The California Endowment, Blue Cross of California and others.