Our children mean everything to us. Parents sacrifice a lot to ensure they are happy, well educated, protected and even entertained. Yet, we are falling short of doing all in our power to guarantee they have a long, healthy life.
On the eve of the start of the new school year, while parents were busy fussing over having the perfect shoes, bags, uniforms and other accessories, Minister of Health John Boyce issued a grim reminder that childhood obesity remains a growing problem in our schools and his ministry was actively searching for funding to get an accurate picture of the true nature of the problem, with students back in classrooms.
The last available data from the Health of the Nation survey conducted in 2012 was not easy on the palate then, as it isn’t now.
The findings drawn from 26 of the island’s schools revealed that a third of students were overweight and almost 15 per cent were obese. It also found that almost 75 per cent drank at least one soft drink per day and a mere 28 per cent got the recommended hour of exercise.
This is worrying, and even more so five years later, especially with no follow-up on the first study.
Minister Boyce’s announcement of his ministry’s effort to change that must be applauded and supported.
Still, it can be argued that this island appears to be dragging its feet on this important issue.
Childhood obesity is a precursor to all types of life-threatening ailments – heart disease, cancer, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes – which have crippled the lives of older Barbadians.
Therefore, reducing obesity rates is crucial to the future health of our young, and Barbados should be forging ahead with a plan to remedy this ill.
Failure to step up action to reverse the worrying trends will only result in the inevitable rise in our already spiralling health care costs and more premature deaths.
Back in February, the Healthy Caribbean Coalition and other key professionals recommended that Barbados ban the sale of sweetened beverages in schools – a move publicly supported by Minister Boyce and Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo, a medical doctor.
At the time, the proposal also received strong support from Chief Medical Officer Dr Joy St John who said childhood obesity was a major concern for authorities.
“The issue of childhood obesity in Barbados is indeed a worrying one, so we need things other than the same old, same old, to try to stop it,” she said.
Yet there has been no movement on the matter, even as news emerged from neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago that soft drinks would no longer be allowed in schools from this academic year.
We aver that the issue must be carefully considered and all the relevant research conducted, but given the alarm sounded by our health authorities can we afford to wait for more studies to be completed?
Obesity is a result of behaviour – eating too much, not enough exercise and other unhealthy habits.
We can improve the odds that our children will not become overweight or obese. We have to give them better options.
Even as Government makes it more difficult for citizens to consume unhealthy foods, it must make it easier for families to have access to affordable healthy foods – more fruits and vegetables and nutritious snacks that are often more costly.
Our basket of goods must contain much better options than the perennial tuna, corned beef and sardines.
Government also has a duty to ensure the menu of the School Meals Service offers growing children nutritious, tasty meals and a renewed emphasis must be placed on ensuring the young have adequate facilities at schools to participate in physical education, along with parks and other safe places to play and exercise in their neighbourhoods.
Equally, parents must provide healthier options in their children’s lunch boxes.
High-calorie foods should be limited; sweet drinks should be banned from the home and replaced with adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables.
Parents must also encourage outdoor activity and set hard-and-fast rules about television and the time spent on electronic gadgets.
The bottom line is that if we are serious about protecting our children and ensuring they can lead healthy, happy lives, we owe it to them to commit to meaningful changes that will keep childhood obesity at bay.