Childhood Obesity Bull’s-eye

“I am a target,” said Brandon Martin.

“I am a target,” repeated Maurice Lane, who joined him in a presentation to fellow students in Hope Haven Children’s Clinic TEAM UP afterschool program at Alden Road Exceptional Student Center (ESC). Each wore a paper target taped to his shirt.

Who is targeting them?

Big Fat Industries has spent billions in advertising and marketing — not to mention free toys — to lure kids to their fast food, soft drinks and junk food.

Couch Potato Companies invite kids to sit on the couch for as many hours as possible each day watching TV and playing video games.

Martin and Lane are part of a campaign rolling out in afterschool programs at 14 schools and other locations around Jacksonville. About 600 fourth and fifth graders — and this ESC group of teens — are participating in the kid-created, kid-led, kid-spread program called Kidz Bite Back.

A Tampa-based nonprofit called 180-Change developed the program, which is currently in three states, serving more than 5,000 children. Wolfson Children’s Hospital is collaborating with the Jacksonville Children’s Commission to introduce the program at some of its afterschool programs with a grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida Foundation.

“The growing rate of childhood obesity in our country is alarming,” said Wolfson Children’s Hospital President Michael D. Aubin in a press release.

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2008, 20 percent of children 6-11 years old and 18 percent of adolescents 12-19 years old in the United States were obese. Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, development of diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and psychological problems like stigmatization and poor self-esteem.

Children and adolescents who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults and are therefore more at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis. One study showed that children who became obese as early as age 2 were more likely to be obese as adults.

More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7 percent) are obese. In 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight, according to the CDC.

“Kidz Bite Back is one of the programs that recognize and help address the serious threat obesity poses to the health of America’s children and the importance of decreasing its prevalence, not only in North Florida and South Georgia, but across the United States,” Aubin said.

The message is simple and presented in terms that children can relate to. Did you know that in order to burn off a large Burger King Oreo chocolate sundae shake, you would have to push a lawnmower from end zone to end zone across a football field 124 times? On Saturday morning television, kids see eight junk-food ads for every 10 minutes of cartoons.

This program not only teaches healthy habits, it helps kids become smarter consumers. If kids eat and drink their fast food, soft drinks and junk food in moderation, Big Fat Industries make less money. If kids are outside instead of playing video games or watching TV, Couch Potato Companies make less money.

They learn that Big Fat Executives know the best place to target kids is near schools and other places where children hang out.

The philosophy of Kidz Bite Back is to develop student leaders who learn the material and find their own ways to present it, such as shooting videos, performing skits or designing posters.

“They get to do what they want with the material,” said Melanie Hall, a consultant to Wolfson Children’s Hospital, who was part of the original team that created Kidz Bite Back. “People take it and personalize it and make it their own.”

For the Alden Road presentation, the students glued examples of sports drinks, energy drinks, soft drinks and juice drinks to a poster and then measured the amount of sugar in the drinks into plastic baggies taped below each one. These are the kinds of drinks the program labels “liquid candy.” In addition to the slideshow provided by Kidz Bite Back, the students shot a video commercial simulating a fast-food restaurant, with the ending tagline “It’s my choice.”

No kid is going to listen to abstinence preaching when it comes to fast food and TV, but moderation is a message that can be learned and lived at an early age. The program teaches the Kidz Creed, a simple formula to help children live healthfully.

Every Day

• Be physically active one hour every day

• Limit screen time (TV and video games) to no more than two hours every day

• Drink three glasses of water every day

• Eat four to five fruits and vegetables every day

Every Week

• Eat fast food no more than one time per week

• Consume soft drinks no more than two times per week

• Eat junk food no more than three times per week

These are lessons many adults have yet to learn. Kidz Bite Back can empower kids to be smarter consumers, who will make smarter, healthier food choices — and perhaps affect their families’ choices, too.

According to a University of South Florida College of Public Health study, 72 percent of parents reported their children’s involvement in Kidz Bite Back led to their family eating and drinking less fast food, soft drinks and junk food; 68 percent reported a decrease in their family’s screen time. More than half said their family ate more fruits and vegetables, were more physically active and drank more water. Children were very likely to go home and educate their parents (79 percent). Teachers, principals and parents reported Kidz Bite Back to have increased students’ academic achievement, social interaction and self-esteem.

At the end of their presentation, Martin and Lane ripped the targets off their shirts.

“I am not a target anymore.”