By investing in prevention, obesity does not have to be Miami’s destiny

Children establish eating habits early in life, which follow them into adulthood.
Children establish eating habits early in life, which follow them into adulthood.

Back in 2013, 67 percent of Miami-Dade adults were overweight or obese, and 13 percent of our teenagers were obese. In response, Miami-Dade worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce obesity through training childcare staff on nutrition, promoting safe streets and improving healthy meal options in public schools and childcare centers.

Unfortunately new research now suggests that more than half of children in the United States are projected to become obese by age 35, with another study reporting that 37 percent of Floridians are obese. In Miami-Dade, this does not have to be our children’s destiny.

Children establish eating habits early in life, and these habits follow them into adulthood. By educating our children about nutrition, healthy cooking techniques, and the importance of good lifestyle choices, we are positively shaping their lifestyles and improving their health. Some of the best solutions that target children can be implemented through local schools.

With help from the University of Miami, the county has already trained staff members at almost 1,000 childcare programs affecting about 100,000 children. Curricula that emphasize the importance of health and wellness should be formally incorporated in all schools, and at every grade level, in order to reinforce lasting, healthy habits. But school-based programs are not enough. The county needs to continue to invest in broader education and neighborhood amenities to create more permanent health improvements.

For example, exercise is a key strategy for reducing obesity, and our built environment shapes opportunities for physical activity. The county has already installed 234 bicycle racks to encourage cycling instead of driving, and invested in shared green spaces, especially outdoor play spaces for children. By prioritizing bicycle lanes, community parks, playgrounds, and sidewalks, the county would encourage more families to get outside instead of spending leisure time as screen time.

Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids (SPARK) is an evidence-based physical education program that increases students' physical activity during school and encourages additional activity at home. These types of programs can go a long way to reducing disparities in physical activity among children living in neighborhoods without parks or safe streets.

Another program, Fit2Play Parks Rx 4Health, coordinates physical activity through pediatrician visits, but tends to disproportionately reach children who have health insurance and regularly see a pediatrician. This type of programming would have an even greater impact if it were funded to reach a more diverse youth population.

Miami-Dade can also address childhood obesity by voluntarily complying with old-school meal nutrition regulations that were rolled back by the Trump administration. Since 2014, schools were required to increase levels of whole grains used in meals served to students through the federal school lunch program, with additional limitations on sodium levels. School meals particularly shape the health of children who depend on these meals as their main meal of the day.

The rollback of federal school meal regulations does not need to mean poorer health for Miami-Dade’s children. While this policy change threatens to shift lunch programs toward more processed, lower-cost meals, local programs that address nutrition, physical activity, and safe outdoor environments can buffer children from the negative effects of federal policies.

By electing officials to state and local government who prioritize health and wellness in our schools and communities, we can help disrupt the cycle of obesity. Our elected officials should continue to fund programs that increase usable green space and promote exercise, and subsidize school lunches so we can serve healthier foods in our school cafeterias. Students have responded well to exercise initiatives and better food choices over the past few years. Let’s keep this momentum going and reverse the tide of obesity in Miami.

Gabriela Aklepi is a Miami native and undergraduate student majoring in exercise physiology at the University of Miami. Justin Stoler is assistant professor of geography and public health sciences at UM.