Former Governor Sarah Palin recently claimed that First Lady Michelle Obama's childhood obesity prevention campaign inappropriately usurps the role of parents in making food choices for their children. Her critical comments fail to recognize that, in too many instances, parents have become prisoners of school and community environments that restrict their child's access to healthy food and physical activity options.
A recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Bridging the Gap program found that schools contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic by continuing to offer mostly high calorie food of low nutritional value in cafeterias and in vending machines and by providing too little time for recess or physical education.
Other studies have shown that communities can contribute to the epidemic by failing to embrace policies that increase access to affordable and fresh fruits and vegetables and to amenities that promote physical activity, such as parks, open spaces, connected sidewalks, bicycle lanes and trails.
With nearly one in three children and adolescents in the United States either overweight or obese, more than 23 million young people nationwide, childhood obesity has become a national threat.
Research shows that obese children are at increased risk for becoming overweight and obese adults and that they are more likely to develop serious chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular and renal disease. As a result, many experts predict that our nation's children will pay a steep price by living sicker and shorter lives than their parents.
Additionally, it is estimated that childhood obesity costs up to $14 billion each year, and adult obesity up to $147 billion each year in direct medical expenses alone. The cost to our nation can also be measured in terms of reduced or unrealized productivity, lost wages and economic stagnation.
Precisely because the stakes for our children's health and the country's fiscal outlook are so high, our federal, state, local and school leaders must be at the forefront of addressing the childhood obesity epidemic by advancing policies and programs that make it easier for parents and caretakers to help children be physically active and consume nutritious foods.
Many people call Governor Sarah Palin a defender of freedom. So she must know that there is no freedom where there is no choice. Given the circumstances, it should be clear that the First Lady's initiative and other efforts like hers are not about limiting parental control or individual liberties but about ensuring that parents and their children have more opportunities to make healthier choices.
Instead of being critical, I hope that Governor Palin joins Mrs. Obama in the national effort to support parents, kids and communities that want to be healthy.