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Thursday, July 24, 2014         

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USDA-UH research aims to rein in child obesity

By Tom Vilsack and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye

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There aren't many things more important to Americans than the health of our children. Yet an astounding 30 percent of them are overweight or obese.

This means that many kids are not learning as well as they should in school because they can't concentrate or have self-esteem issues.

In the long term, obesity threatens the safety and prosperity of our nation, as fewer 18-year-olds are fit for military service, fewer young adults have the skills they need to compete in a global economy and obese adults strain our health care system.

Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress worked together to make an important step forward in the effort to raise a healthier generation of Americans with the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. It was a historic victory for our nation's youngsters — giving USDA the chance, for the first time in more than 30 years, to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs for millions of children.

USDA is working with first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative to solve the problem of childhood obesity by engaging the public — the parents, teachers, doctors and coaches who can make a big impact on a child's life. Hawaii recently launched its "5-2-1-0 Let's Go Initiative," calling for more fruits, vegetables and physical activity, and less sugary drinks, television and computer screen time.

But we know we need to do more.

Our work must be based on the most up-to-date science, and we must look for the most effective ways to combat this problem. This year, USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has committed more than $80 million to childhood obesity prevention projects across the United States to research behavior, eating habits and intervention practices. And we are proud that USDA is supporting the work being done at the University of Hawaii. NIFA awarded $25 million to the university as the lead institution to decrease childhood obesity in communities in Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. Pacific.

Underserved native populations are especially vulnerable to the obesity epidemic. It is estimated that 60 percent of 5- to 10-year-old overweight children in these communities will develop Type 2 diabetes, compared to 33 percent of all U.S. children. They face challenges that the rest of the nation doesn't encounter, like isolation because of thousands of miles of ocean and land without roads.

This region is also highly dependent on food imports, which are often processed and energy-dense. Add to these severe socio-economic disparities and threats to native lifestyle and we have a serious and unique problem that needs to be addressed.

Through an integrated program, UH researchers will look at all the factors that affect a child's health, from psychology and parenting skills to social and environmental influences.

The project will partner nine institutions that serve minority communities throughout the Pacific region, allowing for more collaboration and a larger impact. Through grants like this one, USDA supports sound scientific research that will reverse the trend of rising obesity rates and help children and their families adopt healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

At the end of the day, our goal is simple: We want the next generation to be the healthiest and best educated in our history. Our work in schools and communities, and the research conducted around the country, is designed to help get us there. The health of our children, our communities and our nation depends on it.






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