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John McMillin: School-age obesity is a problem we can change

John McMillin • Updated Mar 21, 2017 at 6:00 PM

Obesity rates for Tennessee students have tripled in the past 30 years; I learned this recently. At United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland, we are privileged to be a member of our United Way statewide organization because of such information shared from a large group.

Also news for me, during this recent meeting, is the fact that Tennessee is the 11th-most obese state in the nation for children. Thankfully, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, thanks to support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the JPB Foundation, is working with communities throughout the state to make it easier for children to lead healthier lives.

“More than 780 schools serving more than 437,000 students across the state have joined the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program, creating healthier school environments for children to thrive,” according to their website, healthiergeneration.org. “The communities we serve range from very small rural districts to the largest urban districts in the state. Since 2007, Tennessee schools have been recognized with 64 National Healthy Schools Awards for their outstanding efforts.”

The organization also made it easier for more than 6,000 youth in 67 out-of-school programs to eat right and be more active. Healthier Generation works with schools, companies, community organizations, health care professionals and families to change conditions and systems that lead to healthier children.

School is a great place to start children on paths to making healthier food choices since they spend the better part of their waking day inside some classroom. Their Healthy Schools Program is building healthier school environments for more than 18 million students in more than 31,000 schools in every state, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Not only does the organization have large numbers, but the quality of its’ efforts in these schools also make a tremendous difference. Healthier Generation works to bring together teachers, schools, parents and administrators with students to each play a part in creating change on school campuses.

They also work with out-of-school providers like after school programs and childcare facilities to teach healthy eating and physical activity standards to create a guide for communities nationwide. The organization is able to do this, in part, because of their work with companies from many industries to improve access to healthier foods. For example, they sat down with beverage, snack food, dairy and health care industries to gain voluntary agreements to provide lower calorie food. Their beverage agreement has resulted in a 90-percent reduction in calories shipped to schools across the country.

Why does all this matter? Consider that in 2008, nearly 10 years ago, medical costs of obesity alone were estimated to be $147 billion. The annual nationwide cost to productivity to obesity and its issues like diabetes range between $3.38 billion and $6.38 billion to our nation.

Together, this is an issue we can tackle and make a tremendous positive difference for our children and future generations. For more information, visit healthiergeneration.org.

John McMillin is president of United Way of Wilson County and the Upper Cumberland. Email him at john@givetouwwc.org.

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