Cory Booker on Childhood Obesity: Fix It Now
Life + Money

Cory Booker on Childhood Obesity: Fix It Now

REUTERS/Mike Segar

Amid continuing worries that rising obesity rates could push health care costs into the stratosphere, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., and others are promoting healthier eating and exercise in cities across America – with boosts from U.S. businesses as well as First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made healthy eating a core issue.

Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit that solicits pledges from private companies and other groups to combat obesity, said Thursday more than 1,700 cities promoted exercise last year among 3 million kids. One in three American youngsters is obese right now, while many more are overweight.

RELATED: The Obesity Epidemic: Another $550B in Costs by 2030

The group, which held its annual conference this week, said it wants to help 10 million Americans have better access to healthier foods: It claims that 23.5 million people, including 6.5 million children, do not have the ability to buy fresh produce or cannot afford to buy it, Reuters reports. “Already, 141 grocery stores have been built or renovated in so-called ‘food deserts,’ often low-income urban neighborhoods without nearby grocery stores, helping more than a half-million people.”

Among the group’s business partners are Walmart and Darden Restaurants, while GE Healthcare said on Thursday it, too, would now join the partnership. Some restaurants have promised to alter their food offerings and to move away from such high fat, high-starch kid-friendly options as chicken fingers and French fries.

Mayor Booker, a member of the group and a Democrat who has filed papers for a potential Senate candidacy next year, told MSNBC this morning, “We’ve got to deal with [the obesity issue] every day. We knew this [initiative] would be about people making specific, measurable commitments to deal with this national crisis.”

He said that partner hotels and restaurants are transforming their menus for healthier options. Reebok, he also said, has pledged to expand its commitment to offer more “athletic opportunities” for American kids. 

“I see it on my very local level, where we've been working to expand access to healthy foods and to get the curriculum changed. This year alone, we've been able to expand healthy options to thousands of kids.” But Booker also acknowledged the obesity crisis “is getting worse – not better. We’re just in the foothills. There’s a lot more mountain to climb.”

Booker was asked if the food choices for children should be between parent and child – whether government should be involved in any way in diet and health matters. Booker’s retort: “To me that's just agonizing political rhetoric. That’s not the story in America. When you tell that mother to get healthy food for her kids, well, if you live in a food ‘desert,’ it's hard to get [the right foods]. We as a nation” have to do better, he said.

According to a report last fall co-authored by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the obesity problem threatens to send health care costs soaring. The U.S. spends about $147 billion to $210 billion a year on obesity-related diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and arthritis. Unless America goes on a healthy diet, additional medical costs associated with treating preventable, obesity-related diseases could swell by another $48 billion to $66 billion by 2030.