Tennessee faith groups fight youth obesity

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — United Methodists in Tennessee and across the nation are standing together to fight against a growing health issue among children.

West End United Methodist Church preschool

Jada Oldham (left) and Fair Wellons enjoy a healthful lunch at West End United Methodist Church's preschool in Nashville, Tenn. (UMNS photos by Mike DuBose)

Obesity, now diagnosed in 17% of children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, is an increasing problem, and faith leaders are saying it’s time to do something about it.

Vincent DeMarco, national coordinator of Faith United to End Childhood Obesity, is working with leaders of the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS), United Methodist Men and others to fight against this crisis.

“Childhood obesity is a growing threat to our children’s health,” DeMarco said, noting that obesity contributes to diabetes and other health problems. “We need to deal with the problem, and it’s a problem that can be dealt with. There are things we can do to make something happen, and the faith community is in one of the best positions of anybody to make something happen.”

Faith leaders motivated

DeMarco has helped coordinate efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado and now Tennessee.

“What faith leaders have shown in the areas where we’ve had these events is that they’re motivated, and they want to work on it,” DeMarco said.

Gil Hanke

Gil Hanke, chief executive of United Methodist Men, says the organization “has a long history of advocacy in health issues, starting with tobacco and now with obesity.”

In late October, the United Methodist Assn. of Preschools in Tennessee, GBCS and United Methodist Men hosted a news conference at West End United Methodist Church here to announce a partnership with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and other local advocacy groups to work toward ending childhood obesity.

The Tennessee Conference of The United Methodist Church is encouraging churches and preschools to commit to the cause by signing a “covenant for a healthy faith community” that indicates their agreement to implement programs and policies that will create a healthier start for children.

Gil Hanke, top staff executive of United Methodist Men, said his agency “has a long history of advocacy in health issues, starting with tobacco and now with obesity.”

Ridiculously alarming statistics

Gayle Callis, president of the United Methodist Assn. of Preschools, said the partnership was created to address lifestyle trends leading to the “ridiculously alarming” statistics about childhood obesity in Tennessee.

“It’s a commitment to making people more aware of the causes of childhood obesity and what we can do as a faith-based community to help change those causes,” Callis explained. “We’re focusing this particular initiative on early childhood and the things we can do to help prevent childhood obesity in that age group.”

Callis said the partnership will begin in weekday childhood ministry programs to educate caretakers and parents and then will extend into the congregations, the Sunday school classrooms, the whole faith community.

Purpose of the partnership is to unite faith leaders in joining the first lady’s campaign, according to DeMarco. “What we’re doing is putting together these events around the country … to encourage faith leaders to work with the First Lady’s Let’s Move team to deal with childhood obesity,” he said.

Shift in thinking

DeMarco said the partnership with The United Methodist Church began in May when about 20 national faith leaders, including Jim Winkler, GBCS chief executive, and Cynthia Abrams, director of the agency’s Alcohol, Other Addictions & Health Care work area, met with leaders in the first lady’s Let’s Move team to talk about how faith leaders can help move this issue.

DeMarco described the response from groups in Tennessee as “overwhelming.”

“There is a lot of interest in this, and we think the Tennessee one is going to be one of the best events because of The United Methodist Church taking such a leading role in it,” DeMarco said, “and really talking about specific things that are going to be done in the child-care area in helping children reduce obesity.”

DeMarco and Callis said the United Methodist Assn. of Preschools plans to do training and research to equip people who work with children to understand causes of childhood obesity and how to change the growing trend toward overweight children.

Change is possible

Callis said that change is possible with a little shift in thinking. “It involves being open to change and learning the research and understanding the whys behind what we do,” she said. “I think it’s making a commitment to be open to make those changes, and then learning what we need to change and how we need to do that.”

DeMarco suggested that churchgoers who want to get involved can start by registering their organization with Let’s Move. He then suggested that they join the fight to end obesity by generating support within their congregations.

“It’s a serious problem, and the faith community can do a lot to deal with it,” DeMarco said.

Healthy habits crucial

One way the preschool association is dealing with it is by offering sessions for child-care centers that want to learn more about improving food and exercise options for their kids. Callis said developing healthy habits early in life is crucial, and the group is ready to help.

“From birth until five, children set habits. They’re already developing habits that are going to stay with them for the rest of their lives,” Callis said. “Basically what you have to do is educate — educate parents, educate caregivers — about the importance of this.”

And, for Callis, taking care of children’s health is not just her job as an educator but also her role as a Christian.

“In the [United Methodist] Book of Discipline, under Social Principles, we’re responsible for the whole child,” Callis said. “I think it’s important that we not only spiritually fill our children, but that we take care of the physical part of them as well.”

Editor's note: Emily Snell is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

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