Teaching children about healthy food. Photo courtesy San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative

By Ron Roberts and Marion Standish

San Diego will become the national focal point on childhood obesity next week. Nearly 1,800 experts will convene here for the national Childhood Obesity Conference, sharing community-based efforts, best practices, emerging research and effective policy approaches to end this devastating health crisis.

It is fitting that San Diego County is the host site for this conference. As health experts descend on our community, they will discover innovative programs that originated right here to protect our children and help them maintain a healthy weight.

So why this emphasis on our children’s weight?

Today, about one in three American youth are overweight or obese. That’s nearly triple the rate in 1963, according to the American Heart Association. The rates are even higher for low-income and children of color, which highlights the importance of “health equity” as the conference’s theme.

Among children, obesity is causing a broad range of health problems previously not seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels. Then there are the psychological effects — obese children are more prone to low self-esteem, negative body image and depression. And excess weight at young ages has been linked to higher and earlier death rates in adulthood.

In light of these frightening realities, the county convinced several hundred partners to come together 10 years ago from diverse fields to form the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative. A decade later we have engaged hundreds of partners and worked tirelessly across seven major sectors — government, healthcare, schools and after-school, early childhood, community, media and business — to put in place strategies designed to support healthy eating and active living for our children and their families.

The California Endowment funded two major grant programs that focused on helping government institutions, especially schools, dramatically improve the wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available to students.

A report to be released next week will show our efforts paying off!

Childhood obesity numbers in San Diego are declining. More importantly, we’ve put in place programs to ensure that continued trend.

San Diego should be rightfully proud of its childhood obesity advances. But, we cannot begin to pretend that we have licked this problem. Indeed, the report shows that we still have a long way to go.

Perhaps the report’s most serious finding is the alarming disparity in obesity rates among ethnic and low-income communities. In 2015, the childhood obesity rate for Hispanic students was more than twice the rate for non-Hispanic students and 2.5 times higher than among white students. Economically disadvantaged students today are twice as likely to be obese than students who are not economically disadvantaged.

The concentration of obesity among low-income and ethnic minorities is disturbing, but not unique to San Diego. The same inequities in children’s health we see here are playing out on the national stage.

As efforts increase to address childhood obesity, we can share our unique insights with other experts from around the nation. Public health professionals from across the country will be touring San Diego County to see our impressive work and learn about fresh approaches.

We have a good share of learning to do as well.

Given the devastating impacts of obesity on children, our health professionals need to be in the conference hall tapping into the latest thinking, strategies and research.

With national obesity attention firmly fixed on San Diego next week, we should celebrate our leadership role in developing and implementing programs to reduce childhood obesity. At the same time, we need to up our game to ensure that every child, regardless of income or ethnic background, has the opportunities, programs and support they need to attain a healthy weight. It all starts at home. And for us, that’s San Diego County.

Fourth District County Supervisor Ron Roberts was instrumental in founding the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative and remains actively involved today. Marion Standish, vice president for enterprise, of the California Endowment, oversaw efforts to get more fresh vegetables and fruits served in government institutions.