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The Podium

Teaming up against obesity

Childhood obesity has become an increasingly hot topic in recent years, thanks — in part — to Michelle’s Obama’s timely “Let’s Move” campaign.

But sadly, the numbers are still moving in the wrong direction. One in three American children are overweight or obese — a number that has more than tripled since 1980, according to the surgeon general. Nearly half of those ages 12 to 21 aren’t vigorously active.

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As we know, obesity has dire health consequences. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control predicted a disturbing spike in childhood diabetes, with rates of obesity-related type 2 diabetes potentially increasing four times over the next 40 years.

But there are some bright spots in this bleak landscape. About 54 percent of children ages 6 to 17 are playing team sports, according to a recent report by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Still, a pervasive lack of access to sports in low-income communities prevents many eager children from suiting up. These kids are at the crosshairs of obesity and poverty, negatively impacted by a lack of resources, poorer quality food and unsafe streets. Families, understandably, are desperately seeking structured programs, in which kids are supervised and protected.

Years of deep school budget cuts have sliced sports, arts and even basic services, piling parent fees onto everything from busing to basketball to band. Meanwhile, grassroots youth sports organizations are struggling to provide quality programming as they face budget cuts as well. With armies of dedicated volunteers, their hearts are in the right place, but they often lack the money to safely equip teams. Many parents can’t afford fee-based programs. Waiting lists can be 400 kids deep. And the money isn’t coming from other sources.

We hear a lot about the challenges these tenacious coaches and parents face at Good Sports, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit dedicated to providing sports equipment to youth around the country.

This year, we received more than 1,000 equipment requests; through linking needy organizations and schools with generous manufacturers, we met 35 percent of the requests.

In our internal surveys, 88 percent of the organizations we serve rate equipment as their greatest need. So we do our best to help, last year distributing $1.5 million in jerseys, balls and protective pads to 90,000 kids nationwide.. We also provide team uniforms, recognizing the powerful role they play in developing team spirit and kids’ sense of belonging and self-esteem.

We don’t know how many leagues fold or turn kids away for lack of equipment and funding. We do know, anecdotally, that our donations allow new leagues to form, help longstanding organizations stay afloat and create more spots for kids on the field.

Peter Caruso, a sports coordinator in Brockton, Mass., told us recently: “This donation has allowed us to exist for another year in tough economic times for public school systems. It also has allowed our urban youth to play sports, where they would not have been able to pay for themselves.”

We can all help prevent childhood obesity – whether by keeping our own children active, volunteering in youth sports, or donating to nonprofits that get kids off the sidelines.

No child should be condemned to a lifetime of ill health because of where he or she lives. Or because parents have an inability to pay.

This epidemic is not inescapable: we must embrace the value of sports, fitness and nutrition in our children’s social, emotional and intellectual lives. Youth sports are more than a hobby; they are critical to the development of a child in all these aspects. So with the proper training, support and equipment, youth sports programs can be a key part of the solution, across all income levels, in the challenging fight against childhood obesity. Let’s make that happen.

Melissa Harper in CEO of Good Sports.
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