Governor proposes anti-obesity agenda

February 24, 2010

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is proposing to remove sport drinks like these from California's public schools. This brand has about 150 calories and 42 grams of sugar per bottle.

Updated at 2:19 pm.

LOS ANGELES–Describing childhood obesity as a “huge problem” afflicting California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today proposed new measures to force local schools to provide fresh water, ban sugar-sweetened sports drinks and ensure that kids exercise during physical education classes and after-school programs.

Schwarzenegger also said he wants to encourage schools to keep their playing fields open after hours and on weekends and make it easier for low-income communities to receive grants to improve walking and biking routes to school.

“Obesity is a huge problem for the state of California,” Schwarzenegger said at a policy summit in Los Angeles with former President Bill Clinton.

Schwarzenegger said one-third of California teens and three out of five adults are either overweight or obese. Those numbers, he said, have been building for decades and are going to be difficult to turn around. But he said that concerted action by parents, schools, government and the private sector could have an impact.

“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “There is no magic. It cannot be done overnight.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former President Bill Clinton discuss obesity at a policy summit in Los Angeles. Photo from Peter Grigsby, office of the governor.

Clinton said he committed his private foundation to focus on nutrition and obesity after he had heart surgery in 2004. He said obesity-related problems, including heart disease and diabetes, account for $150 billion in spending in the Medicaid program alone, which provides health care to the poor. But he also said the problem is taking a human toll.

“We’re running the risk of having the first generation of kids live shorter lives than their parents,” Clinton said. “Until we get a hold of our lifestyles and the food chain and how we eat and exercise, we are going to have serious problems.”

Both men said parents have to do more to provide healthy foods for their children and encourage them to exercise. But they also noted that, especially in low-income neighborhoods, that can be difficult. Often, no fresh fruits or vegetables are available at nearby stores, and places for kids to play are few and far between.

Clinton offered a vague mea culpa for being part of the movement to subsidize the corn industry, a policy that has been blamed for making high-fructose corn syrup cheaper and thus more widely used in sweetened foods and beverages. Noting his own health problems, he said he has been perhaps both a “victim” and “complicit” in the problem. But he encouraged Californians to send an economic message to the food industry by refusing to buy unhealthy products.

“We need to create a movement in America to push back up the food chain so we stop subsidizing food production that is harmful to our country,” he said.

Schwarzenegger noted that he had already signed legislation to ban soda and junk food from school vending machines and require nutrition labeling on restaurant menus. But he said sweetened sport drinks were sneaking through a “loophole” in the vending machine law that needs to be closed, and he endorsed legislation requiring schools to provide fresh water with meals that they serve to students by 2012. The governor also wants physical education classes to spend at least half their time in moderate or vigorous physical activity, and after school programs to include at least 30 minutes of exercise.

The summit featured testimonials from school administrators, teachers and others who have been on the forefront of anti-obesity policies.

Jennifer LeBarre, director of nutrition for the Oakland schools, said her district has already banned sweetened sport drinks. Ken Dyar, coordinator of physical education for the Delano Unified School District, described that district’s commitment to transforming the fitness culture of its largely low-income student body. Robert Ogilvie, director of the Planning for Healthy Places program, said communities across the state are beginning to look at ways to make it easier for parents and children to eat well and exercise.

“Right now in too many neighborhoods, the healthy choice is the hard choice,” he said.

Clinton echoed that sentiment, saying that many parents feel “overwhelmed by the circumstances of their lives” and need help from government and community organizations to change their ways. But he also said the essence of the problem is not complicated.

“There is still a simple equation,” Clinton said. “In the end it’s calories in, calories out. We ingest too much and exert too little.”

–Daniel Weintraub

Note: Schwarzenegger’s event today was hosted by the California Endowment; the Endowment is also the initial funder of this web site, www.healthycal.org.

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