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Making Health a Priority Benefits New Jersey’s Kids

January 12, 2017 | Blog
by Darrin Anderson and Jasmine Hall Ratliff

If we want our children to grow up with healthy minds and healthy bodies, we need to surround them with opportunities to develop healthy habits from their very first days. Providing opportunities like these has played a key role in efforts to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, and it’s starting to pay off—both nationally and in New Jersey.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show that between 2010 and 2014, New Jersey’s obesity rate for 2-to-4-year-olds enrolled in the federal nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) fell from 18.9 percent to 15.3 percent. The data pointed to similar declines in 30 other states.

Several factors might be driving this trend.

In 2009, the WIC program started offering a wider variety of healthy food options and increased its promotion and support of breastfeeding. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Department of Health strengthened its obesity prevention programs in early childhood centers. We know that when we make healthy changes, kids benefit.

More broadly, for over a decade, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and it partners have been working to ensure that all children grow up at a healthy weight. Across the country, a movement is taking root to not only reverse the obesity epidemic, but to ensure kids and families can easily and consistently make healthy choices.

We see this very clearly in New Jersey, where diverse, cross-sector partnerships among leaders in business, education, social services, health care, transportation, and public planning are putting fresh fruits and vegetables in corner stores, teaching kids how to choose healthier snacks, and making it easier for students to walk and bike to school.

For example, a statewide initiative is helping neighborhood store owners stock, market, and sell healthy, affordable foods to their customers. More than 160 stores around the state are enrolled in the New Jersey Healthy Corner Store Initiative, including about 30 that are approved vendors of the WIC program, which makes it easier for families who are part of that program to purchase the stores’ healthier products.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that 340,000 New Jerseyans live in “food deserts” that lack well-stocked grocery stores and markets. The Healthy Corner Store Initiative is creating healthy food options for families in neighborhoods where such options previously did not exist.

Children spend a lot of their time at school, so it is important to ensure that their learning environments promote health. New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids is working with several public school districts—including Trenton, Camden, Vineland, New Brunswick, and Newark—to develop and implement strong and comprehensive school wellness policies. These school wellness policies provide guidelines on the nutritional quality of foods and beverages sold and served on campuses for school celebrations and school-sponsored events. Physical activity is integrated into the classroom and afterschool programs.

A “Safe Routes to School” provision in these communities commits the school district to assessing and, if necessary, making improvements, such as repairing sidewalks or installing new traffic lights or bike lanes, so that students can walk and bike to school more easily.

Also, the Newark Public Schools’ Head Start Program launched an initiative in nine locations across the city that teaches its preschool-aged students about the importance of being active and eating healthy.

These are just a few examples of the work that’s being done across sectors to create a Culture of Health in New Jersey and ensure a healthy future for all kids.

Despite the progress, more work remains. A 15.3 percent obesity rate in kids only 2 to 4 years old is still far too high.

We need to continue investing in our children. That’s why it’s so important to bring healthy, affordable foods to our neighborhoods; to create and maintain safe places for people to be physically active; and to give our kids the best possible start in life.

Darrin W. Anderson, Sr., Ph.D., is the State Deputy Director of the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids. 

Jasmine Hall Ratliff, MHA is a Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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