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Obese children need our help

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A recent study released by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that obesity may soon replace smoking as the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States. In 2000, poor eating habits and lack of exercise contributed to 400,000 deaths while tobacco use killed 435,000. Closer to home, Oregon earned a C grade in a study released by the University of Baltimore for its efforts in fighting childhood obesity.

The news on childhood obesity is startling. In this country, approximately 12.5 million children are considered obese. In the past three decades, the obesity rate has tripled for children ages 2 to 5 and youth ages 12 to 19 while it has quadrupled for children ages 6 to 11. Alarming health consequences as a result of childhood obesity include a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, increased risk factors for developing heart disease, asthma, sleep apnea, and psychosocial effects such as decreased self-esteem. A solution to this epidemic needs to be pursued.

That is why in 2005, I successfully pushed for a comprehensive study of childhood obesity in Oregon. That study was released in 2007 and led to a number of efforts to combat childhood obesity this past session, including new restrictions on junk food in schools.

What we learned from the 2005 study is most children in Oregon and around the nation are not meeting federal dietary guidelines. While it is important for parents to take an active role in providing healthy and nutritious food for their children, it is also equally important that schools offer a wide variety of healthy food and beverages. The food and beverages served to students through the federal meal programs meet acceptable nutritional standards. However, 'competitive food'- food and beverages sold that are not part of the federal meal programs - are not required to meet nutritional standards. These items are usually found in vending machines and are high in calories and fat. In order to curb the childhood obesity epidemic, Oregon must limit 'competitive food' in schools. This session I supported establishing science-based nutrition standards for competitive food and beverages in schools.

Another clear reason why childhood obesity continues to expand is the reduced number of hours children are involved in physical activity each week. The Surgeon General recommends that children should be getting at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. However, funding for our schools has not kept pace with costs, resulting in cuts to physical education programs. The Oregon Legislature has begun to address this problem by passing legislation to evaluate current physical education levels in our schools and creating a pilot program to provide grants to increase the number of physical education classes. We have also made a commitment that children in elementary school will be required to be in physical education 2½ hours each week and youth in middle schools will take part in almost 4 hours per week of physical education by the 2017-18 school year.

Children also need to be participating in physical activity outside of school. Neighborhoods must have safe recreational facilities for physical activity, and neighborhood streets should be designed to encourage safe walking or biking between home and schools. While in the 1960s nearly half of the students walked to school, now only around 19 percent of children walk to and from school. In the 2007 session, I sponsored the Safe Routes to Schools legislation, requiring school districts that are seeking funding for large construction projects to evaluate the need for safety improvements within one mile of an elementary school and 1.5 miles of a middle school. This should give parents greater peace of mind about safety of their children walking or biking school.

The passage of these three measures, along with the comprehensive 2005 study, has put Oregon at the forefront of trying to reduce childhood obesity. However, there is much more that can be done at the local, state and national level. A discussion needs to start with food manufacturers regarding media tactics directed toward children. Oregon needs to establish an Obesity Prevention and Education Program that will take a multifaceted approach to address nutritional standards and physical activity, along with behavioral and cultural approaches. We may have earned a C in our efforts to combat childhood obesity in the past, but I know we can do better.

Senate Majority Leader. Richard Devlin, Tualatin, represents Oregon Senate District 19.