Rest easy Philadelphians with a cheesesteak in one hand and a soda in the other. Not only does our city have the awful distinction of being the poorest big city in the United States (we wrote about this back in September), we are also the fattest. A whopping 64% of adults and 57% of children 6-11 years old, according to a 2010 report from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, are overweight or obese. The report also bemoans that in Philadelphia, obesity has fast become “a norm and a public health crisis.” In North Philadelphia, where poverty is rampant, 70% – that’s right, almost three-quarters of kids – are overweight.
The causes of obesity have been well-documented, and include the interrelated risks of a rise in caloric intake and the replacement of nutritious and healthy foods with high-calorie junk food (driven, in part, by a general lack of access to healthy foods, particularly among individuals and families living in poverty). The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (for kids this includes sodas and non-100% fruit drinks) hasn’t helped either. Nor has the decline in physical activity among our nation’s youth.
Our city has tried to address the epidemic through prevention and awareness programs like the Department of Public Health’s “Get Healthy Philly” project and through partnerships with local organizations like The Food Trust, which works to expand access to affordable and nutritious foods across the city. The “Get Healthy Philly” programs’ goals include eliminating junk food from schools, decreasing junk food consumption by 10%, ensuring that at least 25% of Philadelphians are within walking distance of healthy food choices, and increasing by 25% the number of pedestrians and bicyclists in the city. The Nutter administration has also tried to discourage sugary beverage consumption through a controversial soda tax, which City Council has so far refused to approve.
The stakes are high in this fight. Obese children have an increased risk of adult hypertension, abnormal glucose tolerance that can lead to diabetes, and sleep disorders. And the problem isn’t limited to Philadelphia—the epidemic is national. In the state of Georgia, which ranks second only to Mississippi in childhood obesity rates (nearly 40% of kids in Georgia are overweight or obese), a campaign recently launched by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Hospital is earning its share of both enmity and praise from parents, advocates for the overweight, and public health officials.