How Did We Get Here?

The latest research shows that the environments in which we live and the public policies that local leaders enact directly impact the foods our children eat and how much physical activity they get. When schools have healthy foods and beverages in their cafeterias and vending machines, students eat better. When communities have parks and bike trails in their neighborhoods and vigorous physical education programs in their schools, children are more active. When neighborhoods have supermarkets and farmers’ markets that sell affordable, healthy foods, families eat more nutritiously. But when communities are dominated by fast food chains, with few places to play, our children eat worse and are less active, and their health suffers. And we all pay a price—in higher health care costs and lost economic productivity.

Today, children experience very different lifestyles compared with their parents’ generation. Walks to and from school have been replaced by car rides due to such factors as perceived and real safety concerns, sprawl, and neighborhood development.

Comparison of the Usual Travel Mode to School
for K-8th Grade Students 1969 and 2000

Reference: National Center for Safe Routes to School.  How Children Get to School: School Travel Patterns from 1969 to 2009.  November 2011.

Schools have reduced the amount of time students spend in gym class, and afterschool sports have been cut or significantly reduced.  Children and youth ages 8 to 18 spend an average of more than 7.5 hours each day using entertainment media, including TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies, and only one-third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.1,2

Access to unhealthy food has increased in the past few decades.  Thirty years ago, kids ate just one snack per day, whereas now they are trending toward three snacks, resulting in an additional 200 calories per day. One in five school-aged children consumes up to six snacks per day.  In total, we are now eating 31% more calories than we were 40 years ago—including 56% more fats and oils and 14% more sugars and sweeteners. The average American now eats 15 more pounds of sugar per year than in 1970.3

If trends continue, we will see a 42% obesity rate in this country among adults, and future trends in childhood obesity prevalence will have a major impact on adult obesity prevalence and obesity-related costs.4

Now that’s the bad news. The good news is that local policy and environmental changes can be effective at improving health. We just need the will of leaders in our communities, including local elected officials, to take local action so children are able to live to their greatest potential.