This blog originally appeared on Medium.
Today, one out of six children and adolescents in America struggle with obesity — a serious health concern that puts them at risk for dangerous conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke later in life.
As the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, I have dedicated much of my career to improving health and health care in the United States. My experience taught me that there are many approaches for improving the health and well-being of children, at risk families, and underserved communities across the country. In my current role as president of the Clinton Foundation, I’ve seen firsthand the impact of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s approach to reducing childhood obesity and improving healthy lifestyles for children and families nationwide. The Alliance is a groundbreaking partnership between the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation, and as a result of their work, more than 20 million kids in nearly 35,000 American schools in all 50 states have access to healthy food choices and increased physical activity.
I’ve seen firsthand the impact of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s approach to reducing childhood obesity and improving healthy lifestyles for children and families nationwide.
Recent data show that childhood obesity is on the decline, but the simple fact remains that far too many children across the country lack access to nutritious food and time for physical activity. I’ve seen a lot of promising inroads since I’ve left government and become a champion of the Alliance. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Our Nation’s Schools Are on the Front Lines
Every day, 95 percent of school-aged kids and teens attend school. Aside from home it’s the place where kids spend most of their time. While it’s true that childhood obesity ranks as one of the largest concerns that adults have about children’s health second only to bullying — it’s also true that many leaders at schools across the country are doing an incredible job of providing more opportunities for their students to get educated about how to make healthy choices.
This weekend, I’m in Washington, D.C. with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to honor 328 of America’s Healthiest Schools. These forward-looking learning environments are best-in-class examples of schools committed to developing exemplary programs for healthy eating and physical activity. This year, the nation’s healthiest schools come from 29 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 84 percent serve high-need student populations (defined as more than 40 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program). For example, Roosevelt Elementary School in Indio, California, traded sweets for a salad bar and made physical activity a bigger part of the curriculum.
Partnering with the Business Community Is Essential
One thing we’ve learned at the Clinton Foundation is that the world’s biggest challenges, from poverty alleviation to climate change, are most effectively addressed through collaboration — especially with unlikely partners.
When it comes to bringing all partners to the table — the Alliance has truly paved a new path forward for addressing the childhood obesity epidemic at scale. For example, at the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, the Alliance announced a commitment with the American Beverage Association and America’s leading beverage companies to reduce beverage calories consumed per person nationally by 20 percent by 2025. The Coca-Cola Company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, and PepsiCo are already carrying out this agreement across the country in an effort to decrease beverage calories in the American diet.
Another CGI commitment between the Alliance and McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant chain, will increase customers’ access to fruits and vegetables and help families and children to make healthier choices in the United States and in their top 20 markets worldwide — representing 85 percent of their total sales.
Girls Must Have Equal Opportunities to Get Involved
While millions of girls and boys alike grapple with the challenge of childhood obesity, gender inequality has long placed limits on girls’ opportunities to participate in the kind of physical activity that could benefit their health. The enactment of Title IX in 1972 was a huge step toward ending gender-based discrimination in high school and college athletics. But U.S. girls are still far less likely than boys to achieve recommended amounts of physical activity. Between the ages of 6 and 17, girls’ participation in vigorous physical activity plummets by 86 percent and by the time they’re 14, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys.
This is unfortunate because research shows that physical activity, such as participation in sports, is associated with fewer teen pregnancies, higher self-esteem, and better performance in school. That’s why the Alliance launched the #GirlsAre campaign in May, which encouraged people across the country to share examples of girls’ strength and leadership in various areas using the #GirlsAre hashtag on social media. It did a fantastic job of advancing the national conversation on eradicating unequal access to health and fitness opportunities for girls. More efforts like this will help inspire a new generation of strong and active women.
Help People Commit — #Commit2Ten
Almost 80 percent of adults in America do not get the recommended amount of exercise each week, while only 1 in 3 children is physically active each day. Through #Commit2Ten, the Alliance invited fitness all-stars, individuals (like me!), employers, families, schools, afterschool programs, companies and communities to commit to 10 more minutes of physical activity a day. They provided a personalized fitness profile, a 30-day activity calendar, resources, and motivation.
#Commit2Ten proved to me how a simple call to action paired with the tools to make it happen can make a big difference in how people think about any challenge they are up against. (And, by the way, you can still find all of this on www.commit2ten.org)
Develop and Democratize a Replicable Framework
Achieving impact at scale requires not only a strategic vision, but also a framework for engaging a broader network of activists and people committed to making a difference in their communities. Whether through their Healthy Schools Program, landmark agreements with leading consumer brands, or through awareness campaigns, the Alliance works to engage leaders at every level — schools, extracurricular activities, business and health care — in the effort to help kids lead healthier lives. It’s because of this framework and unique approach that we have reached more than 20 million kids in nearly 35,000 American schools in all 50 states.
We’re proud that the Alliance’s incredible work and its continued momentum in our communities are making a real impact on the health and well-being of children and families nationwide.