Fit children is a group effort

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WASHINGTON - Today's youths can't be expected to solve the problem of childhood obesity all by themselves.

When shocking studies came out in the early 2000s about childhood obesity rates, people began looking for someone to blame. Fingers were pointed at parents, schools, food companies and even the government. The reality of the epidemic is that childhood health needs to be part of a group effort to fight the entire nation's scale-tipping tendency.

As many parents know, early childhood nutrition begins at home, so parents play a key role in helping their children develop healthy habits by setting a good example, monitoring and portioning their child's food, and encouraging physical activity.

The website Kidshealth.org explains that "food preferences are developed early in life," and "likes and dislikes begin forming even when kids are babies." It also says that getting a child to accept a new food may take several tries, but getting him or her to enjoy nutritious foods early forms lifelong habits.

Parents should set an example both in healthy eating and in exercise. They should encourage children to join a sports team or participate in another group fitness activity, because these not only provide exercise but help children learn about teamwork, dedication and time management.

Parents aren't the only ones responsible for ensuring their child lives a balanced lifestyle, though, and the government also is doing its part to end childhood obesity.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 created an initiative organized by the U.S. government to promote and provide healthy food in schools. The act is renewed by Congress every five years, with changes made as needed. The latest changes specifically focused on childhood obesity and giving all children access to nutritious foods.

The act also allows the USDA to make significant changes to school lunch and breakfast programs that will increase the nutrition value of the meals. This is the first time in 30 years that the USDA has been given the power to make such changes, and in the past 30 years obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After the act was signed, it received support from Catholic Charities USA president and CEO Father Larry Snyder.

"This critical legislation ensures that more of our nation's children have access to healthy nutritious food and reaffirms our commitment as a nation to addressing the problem of childhood hunger," he said.

First lady Michelle Obama is taking matters into her own hands with the "Let's Move" campaign, a comprehensive initiative begun in 2010 to solve childhood obesity. The campaign claims that "everyone has a role to play in reducing childhood obesity … including faith-based organizations."

Catholic schools nationwide have been making strides toward helping children learn healthy lifelong practices in fitness and nutrition. In the recent years, more Catholic schools have developed wellness policies that set guidelines for students, teachers and administrators. The policies also prioritize health and wellness initiatives in the curriculum.

Nutritional education, biannual screenings, daily opportunities for physical activities and making fruit available at all meals are some of the measures outlined in the wellness policy at St. Bartholomew School in Miramar, Fla.

SS. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Boonville, Mo., has vowed to limit celebrations that involve food and encourages teachers and staff not to use food or beverages as rewards for academic performance or good behavior.

Shrine Catholic Grade School in Royal Oak, Mich., participated and won first place in a 2011 countywide fitness program called "Count Your Steps." The program challenged students to get out and move, and the school with the most steps in the month of March took a visit to the Detroit Zoo.

One program from Catholic Charities in St. Louis is even teaching high school students to grow their own produce. In 2011 Catholic Charities received a $1,000 grant from UnitedHealth Group for developing its program to combat childhood obesity, City Greens.

"Youth attending our program learn about basic agriculture and eat the vegetables," Judith Arnold, grant manager at Catholic Charities St. Louis told Catholic News Service. She also noted that community served by the program has a high rate of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

The youth gardening project uses hydroponics - a process of growing plants in water - to grow affordable and healthy food, which is then sold at a local market and a mobile market, providing fresh produce in an otherwise "food desert" or an area where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain.

And while these young gardeners gained planting and harvesting skills through the project they most likely also learned another skill without even realizing it: stewardship of God's creation.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970