The media had a field day yesterday with the proposal from Ontario’s Healthy Kids Panel to ban marketing of junk food to kids under 12. Sadly, this missed a number of crucial recommendations that would address the underlying contributors to childhood obesity.
The Wellesley Institute provided a key report that informed the Healthy Kids Panel: Reducing Childhood Obesity through a Health Equity Lens. We showed that:
- Not all children are affected equally by the burden of obesity and poor health;
- Children in families that do not have adequate resources are more likely to be obese and face a greater burden of ill health than children who grow up in families that are better off;
- Children who fare poorly in social determinants of health, such as those who grow up in poverty, who have inadequate housing or food, or who are socially marginalized, are more likely to be obese and are disproportionately affected by its associated health problems.
We argued that to reduce the health burden of childhood obesity, we must address these underlying determinants of health. The Healthy Kids Panel picked up on these themes in a number of areas.
Starting all kids on the path to health
In our report, we argued that it is essential to focus on early childhood development to ensure that all children have the best opportunities for good health. We recommended creating a strong network of prenatal supports and early childhood supports. The Healthy Kids Panel made important recommendations in these areas, including:
- Focusing on early childhood development by enhancing primary and obstetrical care before and during pregnancy;
- Ensuring that prenatal support is accessible and affordable;
- Support for breastfeeding for the first six months of life;
- Building health promotion into well-baby and well-child visits.
Changing the food environment
The place of junk food in our food environment is an important discussion, but we need to be sure to avoid losing sight of larger food security issues in the debate about advertising to kids. In addition to its controversial recommendations in this area, the Panel also recommended:
- Providing incentives for food retailers to develop stores in food deserts and to develop these stores as part of community hubs to support broader child health through recreation and strong social cohesion;
- Establishing a universal student nutrition program for all publicly funded schools to replace the current patchwork of programs; and
- Establishing a school nutrition program for First Nations communities.
These recommendations are an important first step. But we also need to look more deeply into how our neighbourhoods are designed to ensure that we provide the infrastructure and opportunities for people to use active transportation and public transit and that inequitable barriers to recreation, like user fees, are eliminated.
Creating healthy communities
The Panel acknowledged the role that communities and neighbourhoods play in reducing childhood obesity. They recommended:
- Adopting a coordinated community-led approach to developing healthy communities for kids;
- Making schools hubs for child health and community engagement;
- Speeding the implementation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy; and
- Continuing to implement the Ontario Mental Health and Addictions Strategy.
Poverty reduction is a cornerstone of reducing childhood obesity and improving the health of all Ontarians, and the Wellesley Institute continues to provide support and analysis on social assistance reform. As a first step, the government should implement the 25 in 5 recommendations to help Ontarians earn more, keep more, and restore benefits.
Enabling communities to address their own barriers to good health is critical. The Panel recommended joining and replicating a French program: Ensemble Prévenons l’Obesité des Enfants – Together Let’s Prevent Childhood Obesity. Going forward, we can also look at the comprehensive community initiatives model used across Canada by the Tamarack Institute.
Childhood obesity is about more than junk food. To achieve its goal of reducing childhood obesity by 20 percent in five years the Province must address the social and economic barriers to good health faced by many of our marginalized kids.