World Health Day, which falls this week, is an excellent opportunity to address a topic that troubles us all – our children’s health. Or to be more precise – childhood obesity.
In recent years, Israeli children have been growing increasingly obese, to the extent that Israel has the third (!) highest rate of obesity among boys, and fourth among girls. But this cloud has a silver lining: if we think clearly about the problem and address it systemically, we can reverse this troubling trend.
Two main factors influence obesity: eating processed foods rich in fats and salt, and the absence of physical activity.
Let’s start with the food itself. Different educational frameworks (school, preschool) provide most Israeli children with their main meal each day. What are the children being fed? Unfortunately, mostly processed foods. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health both provide minimal supervision (if at all) over school meals. There are almost no precise rules or guidelines detailing what food is permitted or forbidden, and there is absolutely no supervision over the caloric or nutritional value of our children’s meals. This is in contrast to many European countries and the United States, where regulation of school meals is increasing.
It is important to remember that we’re not talking about school meals alone, but rather inuring children to salty, fatty, strongly favored foods. It thus becomes challenging to serve healthy foods at home, since the children find them bland. It’s a bad habit. In other words, school meals have a detrimental effect on the children’s overall eating habits.
Once the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health understand the importance of supervising school meals, and begin regulating the amount of salt and fat per meal, strictly defining the amount and kinds of fruits and vegetables per meal, and forbidding serving processed meat – our children’s health will improve!
This is not hard, and it is being done across the world.
A few weeks ago, I met with American chefs who cook meals for American school children. They told me about Michelle Obama’s initiative to restrict the amount of salt and fat in school meals, requirements for diverse dishes, incorporating fruits and vegetables into the menu, and more. It works. It is possible to create change.
We cannot ignore the other factor that influences obesity – physical activity. To stay in shape, our children need places to run around, play, hide, and play sports. Our world is saturated with cars, which prevent children from crossing the street on their own. Coupled with at-home temptations, such as the computer and television, going outside is increasingly becoming a challenge.
This problem also requires a systemic solution: we must plan neighborhoods so that children can move around as freely as possible. Neighborhood parks should be built to accommodate children aged 1-14, including basketball courts and soccer fields. Neighborhoods should be designed with sidewalks and walking paths, and public libraries and community centers should be built near the parks, with bicycle paths leading to and from these centers, schools, and homes. We should be planning the city through the children’s eyes, to meet their needs and the needs of their families. This is entirely possible, but it requires a new systemic approach.
It has been said before: it takes a village to raise a child. But it takes entire public systems, a society, and a city to raise a healthy child. In order for us to raise a healthy next generation, it is time for the different government ministries, including Health, Education, Housing, and Interior, to take action.