County will hire someone to help fight childhood obesity

Recognizing that childhood obesity is a growing, costly public health problem, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors adopted unanimously on Tuesday to hire a health educator to implement a plan to curb the problem

“I think this is one of the best investments we can ever make,” Supervisor Jim Patterson said.

The supervisors acknowledged that individuals make decisions about what to eat and whether to exercise, but that those decisions are made within an environment created by public policy.

Last year, the board funded a childhood obesity prevention taskforce to study local access to healthy food, exercise opportunities and to recommend specific actions to prevent obesity.

Joel Diringer, a private health consultant, presented the taskforce results to the supervisors.

Slightly more adults are overweight in San Luis Obispo County than the statewide average. Almost one-third of the county's children are overweight, and two-thirds of students did not pass recent school fitness tests.

Obesity leads to several chronic health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke. Those are expensive diseases to treat, and the county will save money by adopting preventive policies, Diringer said.

Schools, religious organizations, parks and recreation, community planners and individuals all play a role, he said.

“It’s an individual problem, but it’s also a community problem and the community norms need to change,” Diringer said.

A least a dozen people urged the board to fund a $60,000 public health educator, who will write grants to attract private funds and coordinate efforts among local agencies.

“When you hire this staff person, you’re also hiring me and all the other executive directors who are working together on this issue,” said Carl Hansen, director of the county Food Bank Coalition.

It’s too expensive for many families to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. The food bank wants to continue working to reduce barriers to fresh food, Hansen said.

Chuck Stevenson, county director of long-range planning, said the obesity prevention taskforce action plan lends credibility to the planners’ emphasis on smart-growth principles.

Planners realize that community design contributes to the obesity problem, and want to promote healthy living with future designs, Stevenson said.

Susan Hughes, director of the county’s tobacco control program, compared efforts to prevent obesity to similar efforts around cigarette smoking 20 years ago. Ardent public health campaigns dramatically reduced the number of people using tobacco, and the same can happen with obesity, she said.

County Administrator David Edge cautioned the board that approving funding for the public health position may encourage other departments to seek funding outside the normal budget cycle.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson agreed to support the funding for a staff person as long as he or she produces measurable, positive outcomes.

“The case has been made very clearly that this public health problem will need change on a massive scale,” Gibson said.