UW Sunday Column 6-29-14: Addressing Obesity Through genHkids

Jen Dillman: Addressing Obesity Through genHkids
As originally published in the State Journal-Register, Our Towns section

Dillman“If you think prevention is expensive, try disease.”     ~ Mary Lasker 1901-1994

When I took the helm of genHkids earlier this year, a lot of people asked me what genHkids is all about, and why I chose to work with the organization.   It all comes back to understanding the genHkids mission, and truly grasping the impact of obesity on our youth and on our community.

The numbers are difficult to wrap one’s head around.

In the U.S. today, 78 million adults are considered obese – more than the populations of California, Texas and New York combined.  Nationally, 112,000+ deaths each year are attributed to obesity.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 28.1% of adults in the state were obese in 2012, and an additional 37% were overweight.  One in five Illinois children is currently obese, higher than the national average.  If obesity rates continue on their current trajectories, the obesity rate in Illinois would reach 53.7% by 2030.

The direct and indirect costs related to obesity are staggering.  The Illinois Department of Public Health estimates that obesity in adults adds more than $3.4 billion to Illinois annual health care costs.  Nationally, estimates of the direct medical costs related to obesity range from $150 billion to nearly $210 billion, annually.

Obesity related diseases are one of the major contributors to worker absenteeism, diminished productivity, high employer health care costs and high workers compensation rates.  In fact, nationally the annual cost of obesity-related productivity loss tops $30 billion.

The projections for our state are even worse.

If the 2012 report is correct and Illinois follows the current trajectory reaching a 53.7% obesity rate by 2030, obesity-related health care costs in Illinois will increase by more than 16%.  Nationally, estimated increases in direct medical costs will approach $300 billion per year, and the national loss in economic productivity is projected to be between $390 billion and $580 billion annually by 2030.

How we reached this juncture in our collective health history is the topic of countless research and opinion papers.  There is no shortage of explanation, with most of it centering on a combination of physical underactivity and poor nourishment.  Likewise, there’s no shortage of blame to be shared:  parents, institutions, schools, the food industry, electronics, and governmental policies.   Ultimately, however, this problem is a burden that must be shared.  As a nation, we face a significant threat to our health, to our wealth, to our productivity, to our national security; as a nation, we must face this threat squarely, and take all possible steps to reverse these projections.

There are a number of highly-funded national programs which attempt to ensure these predictions don’t become reality; but there is evidence that the efforts of small, local organizations are critically important to raising awareness, educating children and families, helping schools make meaningful improvements to the quality of nutrition and quantity of physical activity children receive, and assisting impoverished communities to find ways to increase access to high quality nutrition.

In the Springfield area, genHkids has made significant strides in building a healthier community.   genHkids’ mission is centered around educating and empowering our children to Eat Real and Move More and we are reaching out to children and their parents through school based programs like our Eat Real at School, Brain Breaks and Grow Your Own Grub Club, community based programs like Destination Dinner Table, and our community garden initiatives, including our flagship Seeds of Possibility garden on Cook Street.

As I have talked to various partners and organizations about the work of genHkids, I am grateful for the level of community support we have as we take on this challenge.   I am honored to have the opportunity to lead this organization, and look forward to helping build generation Healthy.

Jen Dillman is the executive director of genHkids.  Look for United Way columns weekly in Our Towns.