Changes in human behavior don’t happen overnight. Modifying human behavior and the interaction of complex systems such as health care, the food industry, schools and communities happens so gradually that we often must look years back to realize just how far we’ve come.

New beginnings

We are in the midst of a revolutionary change in the food environment experienced by our children. For years, the food environment has consistently and powerfully made the unhealthy choice the easy choice, contributing to unprecedented epidemic of child obesity. In the United States, 1 in 3 of our young people are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for serious health consequences.

"The seeds of change we plant today will become the environment we leave to our next generation."

We’ve learned that the best way to turn the tide on childhood obesity is to empower young people to make healthier choices. We do this by ensuring that nutritious options are readily available and appealing, while we effectively educate children about how to make healthy choices. Research tells us that it’s best to start forming this behavior young, as there is a strong link between children’s practice of healthy habits and their life outcomes.

Charting progress

Over the past decade, we’ve made significant progress in surrounding kids with an environment of healthier options and we’re beginning to see the fruits of our labor. After rising steadily for three decades, the incredibly high rates of child obesity have plateaued. For some populations, the rates are starting to decline.

This progress is the result of the collective efforts of many in both the public and private sectors. Strong policies, such as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, have institutionalized improvements in the nutritional quality of foods offered to millions of children. Today, school cafeterias serve a wider variety of fruits and vegetables and meals must meet a minimum whole grain-rich requirement. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has dropped dramatically at schools since the beverage industry reduced the beverage calories it shipped to schools by 90 percent.

Links in the chain

Kids are also finding healthier options at restaurants, corner stores and the supermarket. Even fast food restaurants are getting with the program. Through a landmark agreement brokered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, McDonald’s is offering more fruits, vegetables and healthy beverage choices and has stopped promoting sodas in Happy Meals. Earlier this year, three other large fast food chains followed suit and removed sodas from their kid’s meal menus.

While these improvements to our food environments are promising and deserve to be celebrated, we have much more work to do to reverse the tide of childhood obesity. We need advocates and leaders to stand up for improved access to fresh produce in underserved neighborhoods, stronger wellness policies in school districts and more incentives for food companies to offer healthier products at competitive prices. After all, the seeds of change we plant today will become the environment we leave to our next generation.