One of the things I enjoy about Burness is the chance to work on advancing issues that have a real impact on people’s lives. A team of colleagues and I have been working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for over a decade to make it easier for all children to get healthy foods and to be active. Some of those efforts are paying off.
In 2009, the food and drink package for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, was updated to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lower-fat milk. Since then, WIC participants, roughly 6.3 million in 2019, have had better access to the building blocks of a healthy diet.
Early research showed that stores taking part in WIC started to stock healthier options. Participating families began purchasing fewer calories, and less sugar, fat, and sodium. They boosted their purchases of fruits and vegetables.
These changes may be contributing to the latest good news about WIC: widespread decreases in obesity rates among participating kids. Between 2010 and 2016, the obesity rate among children ages 2 to 4 participating in WIC declined significantly in 41 states and territories. At the national level, the obesity rate for this group dropped from 15.9 percent to 13.9 percent and was statistically significant among all racial and ethnic groups studied: American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, black, Hispanic, and white.
This is undoubtedly good news. Obesity can put people at higher risk for other chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even certain types of cancer. We also know that those who have obesity in childhood are more likely to have it as adults too.
But the effort to prevent obesity and reduce rates overall is far from over. Obesity rates are still far too high across the board, and we still see dramatic disparities, with black and Hispanic children at higher risk than their white and Asian peers.
As part of its efforts to reduce childhood obesity rates, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation relaunched its website dedicated to the issue in October 2019, as StateofChildhoodObesity.org.
The site is home to rich data visualizations, syntheses of relevant federal policies, including WIC, and recommendations for changes to those policies, as well as stories of local action from around the country.
In Columbus, Ohio for instance, WIC participants can get vouchers to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market hosted by the Franklin County WIC office and Columbus Public Health. (You can read their full story here.)
Stories of action like these are really encouraging. The recent declines in obesity rates give me hope that further progress is possible.