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Editor's blog: Obese child in foster care? It's a diversion

A child removed from his home and placed in foster care because he’s obese?

The boy’s plight is lighting up the blogosphere and surely sparking heated debates at the water cooler and grocery store check-out lines.

In this case, a Cleveland third-grader was put into foster care because he tipped the scale at 200 pounds. He came to the attention of authorities last year when he his mother had him hospitalized due to breathing problems. A county official cited “medical neglect” as the reason to remove the child from his home.

Not surprisingly, his mother, is distraught.

“They are trying to make it seem like I am unfit, like I don’t love my child,” the boy’s mother, who did not wish to be identified, told the Plain Dealer. “Of course I love him. Of course I want him to lose weight. It’s a lifestyle change, and they are trying to make it seem like I am not embracing that. It is very hard, but I am trying.”

I guess it comes down to weighing (no pun intended) the emotional and psychological damage that could result from the boy being taken from his home against the damage his weight is sure to do to him physically – and emotionally. I don’t actually have a strong opinion on this because, without looking at all those confidential documents that make up the county’s case, none of us have all the facts.

Yes, it’s fun to talk about this kid and his plight for 20 seconds, but then it’s time to turn our attention to the much more pressing issue of childhood obesity because that’s the issue we can actually do something about.

In case you missed it, Shepard Nevel, vice president of policy at the Colorado Health Foundation, wrote a compelling editorial for the Denver Post recently on childhood obesity in Colorado.

Childhood obesity in Colorado

Consider the statistics he cited:

“Just 15 years ago, the highest adult obesity rate in the U.S. — Mississippi’s — was 19.4 percent. That’s lean by today’s standards. Today, Colorado “boasts” of the nation’s lowest adult obesity rate — at 19.8 percent.”

Nevel reports that childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years. More than one out of every three children and adolescents are overweight or obese. As we are all aware, overweight and obese youth are at increased risk for serious health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems and stroke.

There is no quick fix to this problem. But take the time – right now – to look around. Are you happy with your own health and weight? Are you eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day, and cutting down on high-fat/low-nutrient foods? Are you getting out for a walk or bike ride or taking a class at your local recreation center at least a few times a week?

I am writing this for parents because our children watch what we do. They quickly pick up our attitudes about food and exercise. I read recently that the single biggest predictor of childhood obesity is the mother’s weight. (Although the research cited in this Washington Post blog focused more on a genetic predisposition for obesity. However, the study notes that rampant video gaming and fast food are making the predisposition worse).

Let’s be honest with ourselves

I know I am carrying at least 10 to 15 pounds of extra weight around. And I know I often eat to ease emotional distress. When I don’t feel so great about my body, I figure it can’t really hurt to eat or drink more crap. On the plus side, I do try to exercise regularly – even if it’s just a walk – and buy and cook fresh food rather than eating at restaurants.

I know I can do better. It’s complicated. If only the advice to “eat less and exercise more” was as simple to achieve as those five little words.

And yet if we don’t want our children to suffer a host of weight-related health problems at some point in their lives, we all need to do better.

There are many questions we can ask ourselves for starters.

What food is being served each day in our children’s schools? What are parents bringing into classroom parties? What are our kids ingesting every day? Are our children getting enough physical activity during the school day and after school?

Finding support and encouragement

In Colorado, we are fortunate to have a range of resources to help us. If you are interested in transforming the culture of your child’s school, check out Colorado Action for Healthy Kids, which offers ample resources to help you on your journey. If you’re feeling brave, at LiveWell Colorado you can find out if you are technically obese and get lots of easy-to-implement suggestions on how to improve your own weight and health. (Turns out many of us are in denial about that).

While it’s provocative to debate whether it’s OK – ever – to place an obese kid in foster care, let’s stay focused on the bigger issue of childhood obesity and what we can do about it. Small steps do count.

Yes, I ate some butter and honey on cornbread for breakfast, some whole milk and a fatty breakfast sausage. My bad. Time to forgive myself and move on. Lunch is another opportunity. And it’s a glorious day, so I will go for a walk.

What will you do?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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