Local Governments Blamed for Childhood Obesity?

 By. Neil Williamson, President

On Monday (2/8), the University of California, Berkley released a study on Monday indicated children living in homes surrounded by traffic hazards are at risk if unhealthy weight gain. 

The study concluded:

This analysis yields the first evidence of significant effects from traffic density on Body Mass Index levels at age 18 in a large cohort of children. Traffic is a pervasive exposure in most cities, and our results identify traffic as a major risk factor for the development of obesity in children.

American City and County Magazine reported the study’s findings suggested city planners should use traffic calming methods to make it safe for children to play outside.

The article quotes UC-Berkley lead researcher Michael Jarrett “When it’s not safe to play outside, kids are more likely to stay inside and play computer games and watch television”.

In September 2009 American City and County Magazine  covered another study reporting Local Governments can help control childhood obesity.  That study from the National Academy of Sciences Institute suggested:

Zoning restrictions on fast-food restaurants near schools and playgrounds, community policing to improve safety around public recreational sites, limiting video game and TV time at publicly run after-school programs, and taxing high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks are some of the strategies local governments can use to combat the problem, according to the report. Those actions could help create environments that make it easier for children to eat healthier diets and move more, said the committee of health experts that wrote the report.

The Free Enterprise Forum finds both studies place too much emphasis on the government and not nearly enough on individual choice and parental guidance. 

The concepts suggested by the National Academies of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine banning fast food restaurants near schools and playground runs afoul of our concept of freedom.

While the built environment clearly will affect  lifestyle, we believe the Jarrett study does not adequately address the other significant socioeconomic variables that have a higher impact than the traffic calming measures that may or may not be in place

It’s the Twinkie® not the traffic

Increased traffic calming measures and skinnier roads will not make skinnier children.  Barring fast food close to schools just means Mom, Dad or Junior will just have to drive further to get their burger.  In the end it is the individual (or parental) dietary choices and level of physical activity that have the greatest impact on childhood obesity. 


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org


One response

  1. It was hard to read the chart you put in this article, but if you look closely at it you see that family, community/school environment, built environment, air quality, diet and physical activity/overall health are all listed as factors that lead to obesity. I think that seems like a fairly balanced analysis, and there are plenty of studies to back it up. Sure – some kids living in a low-density, rural areas with great air quality also have parents that for whatever reason feed the family a steady diet of processed junk, and many of those kids are obese. So clearly environment can’t be the only factor. Yet I think it would be impossible to argue that school-sponsored pizza days and soda machines do anything to contribute to the overall health of children. And one of the most disappointing things I have experienced as a recent transplant from the Northwest is the total lack of pedestrian friendly infastructure in Charlottesville. I could easily walk from my office to the mall to Wholefoods – if there was a way to cross 29 without tiremarks on my back. Simply walking 30 minutes a day is a significant factor in overall health. When infastructure supports pedestrian activity, it also supports community health – what is so hard to understand about that? As for your Twinkie/Traffic summary of the issue: a) why would the road have to be any skinnier? Many cities widen roads to accomodate a bike lane, or provide alterntive pedestrian thoroughfares away from the road – safter for pedestrians and drivers both. b) why doesn’t the county build better pedestrianways AND move the MickeyD’s away from the school – then mom, pop, and junior can take a nice long walk to get a hamburger after school. Just adding some physical activity to the equation and skipping the supersize would contribute a lot to their overall health.

    Sorry – I just don’t buy your take on this article. Responsible cities – the kind that really are great places to live – value all of their citizens and invest in ideas that improve the quality of life.

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