Article Features Connie A. Busse

Leadership for Healthy Living: Los Angeles Tackles the Epidemic of Childhood Obesity

 A bright beautiful Los Angeles day contrasted recently with some bleak and stunning news -— weight gain by adults in Los Angeles County in the past eight years has been 44 million pounds. This is a gain of six pounds for the average person with one in every five adults in the county now considered obese, according to a Los Angeles County Department of Health survey.

The news is no better for children; 25 percent of the nearly 742,000 children in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) are overweight, according to the California Department of Education’s Physical Fitness Program report.

These startling statistics are part of the reason that Los Angeles City Council Member and League President Alex Padilla invited the Cities, Counties and Schools (CCS) Partnership to host a “Leadership for Healthy Living Forum” in Los Angeles. Other event sponsors included Los Angeles City Council Member Jan Perry, LAUSD Board President Marlene Canter and the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. Following a press conference led by Jonathan Fielding, MD, MPH, director of public health and Los Angeles County health officer, more than 60 people gathered for a day to work on how to help children residing in the City and County of Los Angeles.

Harold Goldstein, Ph.D., executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, presented an overview of the causes driving the crisis in children’s health that is sweeping the nation. Goldstein revealed that $15 billion per year is spent on advertising junk food and soda to children. Given the nomadic and tenuous origins of our species, human beings are genetically programmed to crave fats, sweets and salt. We are, in effect, set up to hunger for the very things that are adding to the current obesity epidemic.

In addition to these nutritional challenges, our communities are designed for the automobile — not the pedestrian. We are driving more today than ever before. In 1960, the average number of miles per year traveled in a vehicle was 3,979. In 1995, the most recent year for which data are available, that number had risen to 9,200 vehicle miles traveled per year by an individual. Children no longer walk or ride bicycles to school; less than 14 per- cent do so compared to 70 percent in 1970. More than 78 percent of children get less than the recommended one hour per day of physical exercise.

While people make their own decisions about their lifestyles, the factors cited by Dr. Goldstein affect the individual’s ability to make appropriate choices. The obesity epidemic is a societal problem. Changes in lifestyles are linked to local government decisions about where to permit fast food outlets or convenience stores, how to design communities, what foods to offer for sale in schools and how much physical activity children get during and after school. These factors all contribute to the epidemic. That’s why local government policy is key to changing these outcomes.

In Los Angeles, the city, county and school district were among the first entities to enact policies addressing childhood obesity. In 2002, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors established a blue ribbon task force to develop recommendations for improving the physical fitness of children and youth. The task force developed more than 50 recommendations.

In 2004, the LAUSD passed a policy that banned the sale of sodas in all Los Angeles schools and followed that in 2005 with a policy to improve the quality and nutritional content of the food served in district schools. The City of Los Angeles passed the Child Nutrition Policy to improve the health and well-being of the city’s children.

In a sense, the city, county and schools of Los Angeles are ahead of the game. In most communities, relatively few of the local jurisdictions have passed official policies. So the task for those attending the Los Angeles Leadership for Healthy Living Forum on Feb. 9, 2006, was not to devise local policies but to find ways the three could work to better implement and leverage the policies already in place.

After hearing from Dr. Goldstein and local experts, the group looked at the next steps for creating genuine change. The cross-jurisdictional attendees established three priorities for joint action.

  1. Make physical education and joint use of facilities a priority for schools. Provide safe recreational opportunities during and after school.
  2. Redesign Los Angeles’ physical environment to address how physical space affects physical activity by taking these steps:
  • Work with zoning officials and city planners;
  • Consider school zones;
  • Limit junk food outlets and increase access to healthy food choices; and
  • Design neighborhoods to encourage walkability, and include recreational facilities and green areas.
  1. Enact a 3 percent tax/mitigation fee on junk food and soda.

Now the charge is to work on implementing this action agenda.

The Leadership for Healthy Living Forum in Los Angeles is an example of what can happen when a community comes together to tackle the issue of childhood obesity. This event was one of a series of forums that the CCS Partnership is convening. Working with the Local Government Commission and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the CCS Partnership has held community forums to address childhood obesity in six locations. Each forum reflects the nature of the community where it is held and involves a local planning group to ensure that results fit local needs. Three more forums are planned. Funding for this effort comes from the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families and is part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living Leadership initiative.

If you are interested in hosting a cross jurisdictional Leadership for Healthy Living Forum in your community, contact the CCS Partnership at (916) 323-6011 or e-mail

This article appears in the August 2006 issue of Western City
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