Image from the “United Against Childhood Obesity” day in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 27, 2013. Photographer Robb D. Cohen

GEORGIA – More than 30 organizations turned out at the Georgia state Capitol on Wednesday at an event against the growing epidemic of childhood obesity in the state.

The “United Against Childhood Obesity” day is part of a statewide initiative to step up efforts to stem the worrying trend.

The drive, which included an appearance by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to show his commitment to the issue, brings together a coalition of partners committed to helping children live healthier lives.

Second most obese state in America

Speaking at the state Capital, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, Commissioner of Public Health, said, “The problem is huge in Georgia. The state is the second most obese in the nation.”

Indeed, according to national statistics, Georgia ranks 49th among the 50 states in childhood obesity, with 40 percent of its children aged 10-17 at overweight or obese. Only Mississippi has a worse rate than Georgia.

Equally distressing, Fitzgerald stresses that childhood obesity in Georgia is even worse among minorities and African-Americans. Though the state is predominately white, Atlanta is a black-majority city.

“There is no question than African-Americans suffer more of the consequences of obesity. Diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and some cancers are all related to obesity,” she adds.

Troubling data from across the state

This comes with the recent publication of statewide data, which tested the fitness levels of nearly one million children, about 97 percent of the state’s schools.

In the tests administered by the governor’s Student Health and Physical Education Partnership (SHAPE), only 16 percent of Georgia’s schoolchildren were able to pass five basic tests of physical fitness, and 20 percent were unable to pass any of the tests.

“They couldn’t walk a mile, touch their toes or do push-ups,” said Fitzgerald.

One of the main organizers and a speaker at the event, Pat Willis, executive director for Voices for Georgia’s Children, said there is an urgent need for the issue to become the number one health concern for everyone, including state legislators.

“The data we have received in recent years is more than troubling; it is a wake-up call for both families and institutions like ours to open our eyes, and to reexamine our personal habits and our institutional practices and policies to help children be healthier and more fit,” said Willis in her speech.

She said the only way to put children on track to healthy lifestyles is for organizations to establish a collective commitment to reexamine personal habits, institutional practices and policies.

How to address this issue

The issue can be tackled on multiple fronts, such as “walking and biking trails as an alternative for children [to] get to school; access to fresh food, especially in disadvantaged areas; community gardens, nutritious lunches and snacks at school.”

Reg Griffin, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said while children learn good eating habits from their families, childcare providers also need to do their part.

“Improving fitness and reducing obesity will not be easy,” said Griffin. “When children are in our care outside the home in child care centers, Pre-K classrooms, schools, and after-school programs we need to be vigilant on three fronts: Nutrition, exercise and choices. Parents are always the “first teachers” and we must lead by example.

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