The U.S. government plans to give state and local government hundreds of millions of dollars to fight obesity, including investments in public transportation, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Tuesday.
She said healthcare reform efforts being worked out by Congress represented an opportunity to boost government funding in programs to get more fruits and vegetables into school lunches and encourage grocery stores to sell more fresh produce in poor communities.
“We finally have a plan,” Sebelius told an obesity conference sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington.
She said most of $1 billion appropriated by Congress for disease prevention as part of the economic stimulus plan would go to a CDC-planned initiative to fight obesity, heart disease and other chronic conditions.
“A significant amount of the money will go to help states and communities attack obesity and other public health challenges,” Sebelius said.
A report released at the conference on Monday found that obesity costs the U.S. health system $147 billion a year.
“The American Cancer Society estimates that all cancers combined cost our health care system $93 billion a year. So ending obesity would save our health care system 50 percent more dollars than curing cancer,” Sebelius said.
She praised a 2006 initiative headed by former president Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association that persuaded soft-drink makers to limit some of the sugary drinks sold in school vending machines. CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden told the meeting he supported a soft drink tax.
SERVE HEALTHFUL FOOD
Sebelius said the federal government could do more to encourage healthy habits.
“That means offering more nutritious meals not just in public schools but also in child care centers, recreation centers, senior centers, and other government buildings,” she said.
People also needed more healthy food options in their neighborhoods, Sebelius said, adding that many Americans had no access to supermarkets selling fresh produce where they lived.
She also called for more physical education classes for children and investments to encourage walking, biking and use of public transportation.
She said the government would fund programs like one that buses girls to dance lessons in California.
A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released at the conference found that many school districts were inconsistent in promoting healthier eating. Strong nutritional requirements often went hand-in-hand with weak restrictions for food sold a la carte or in vending machines.
Only 18 percent of elementary students were enrolled in a district with strong policies requiring daily recess.
By Maggie Fox