Your View: We need more innovative solutions to childhood obesity

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently named childhood obesity as “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century” – such a serious challenge that the WHO recently claimed that obesity “has the potential to negate many of the health benefits that have contributed to increased life expectancy.”

It is imperative we work together to provide children the healthy start to life they deserve. This weekend Startupbootcamp Miami and The Idea Center at Miami-Dade College will bring MIT Hacking Medicine to Miami for Hack the Fat, a two-day hackathon aimed at developing innovative solutions to stem the tide of childhood obesity.

Within the US, childhood obesity has more than quadrupled in the past 30 years. Treatment costs of obesity in the US surpass $200 billion annually and are expected to rise to $580 billion by 2030. While the direct costs are high, the indirect costs of the epidemic may be even higher.

Childhood obesity has been linked to higher absenteeism, lower academic achievement, and a higher rate of depression and feelings of isolation. It is difficult to quantify the effect obesity may have on a child’s psyche, motivation or self-esteem, but it is not a stretch to consider those effects substantive.

Given the link between obesity and chronic conditions — diabetes, heart disease and increased rates of cancer, among others — it is paramount we attack the problem early on. Children who are obese at the age of 18 have an 80 percent chance of remaining obese as adults.

Private and public sector initiatives have demonstrated initial signs of success. Michelle Obama’s multi-stakeholder initiative Let’s Move! recently turned five years old and has coincided with an overall stabilization of the childhood obesity rate.

Schools such as Naperville Central High School in the Chicago suburbs have found formulas to both reduce obesity and improve academic performance. With an emphasis on daily physical activity, movement integrated into the classroom, and longer gym hours, Naperville has achieved the lowest student obesity rate in the country and scored No. 1 in science and No. 6 in math in the world on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS).

Private technology companies Kurbo and Zamzee are leveraging the power of technology and digitization to improve children’s health. Kurbo has digitized the “traffic light” program originally conducted at Stanford University — unhealthy foods are classified with a red light, healthy foods with a green light and everything in between with a yellow light.

Yet much more needs to be done. The national childhood obesity rate stands at 17 percent, three times higher than it was in 1974. In African American and Hispanic communities, the obesity rate continues to rise, with nearly 40 percent of children overweight or obese.

In Miami, we count a high density and diversity of Hispanic, African American, and Caribbean populations. Our rich diversity makes the city an incredible place to test, refine, and build solutions to be scaled across the U.S.

We call on all entrepreneurs, technologists, healthcare and educational professionals, food and beverage companies, and other public and private sector community members to join us on Feb. 20 and 21 to develop innovative solutions to build healthier communities and improve the future of all our children.

Hack the Fat, the MIT Hacking Medicine hackathon, is happening Feb. 20 and 21 at The Idea Center. Email [email protected] with any questions.