Given that nearly one out of five young people in the United States is overweight -- a condition that puts those children at risk for obesity -- it was great news in August when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced progress in the fight against childhood obesity.

For the first time in a generation, 19 states -- including California -- experienced a decline in obesity rates among low-income, preschool-age children.

The progress may be modest, but it provides hope to a nation that spends an estimated $147 billion treating obesity-related health conditions each year.

While there is some speculation about the reasons behind the progress, public health experts do agree that when a whole community -- including parents, schools, nonprofits, businesses and restaurants -- works to combat obesity, it makes a significant difference.

By working together, we can begin to address the many factors that influence children's health inside and outside the home.

As a pediatrician, when I talk to parents I stress the importance of moderation and teaching children how to make healthy choices -- as opposed to simply focusing on weight.


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I emphasize the positive impact of engaging in healthy behaviors together. For example, spending Sunday afternoons at a local park as an inexpensive way to enjoy each other and get in some physical activity. Or involving children in grocery shopping and cooking, connecting with children over a healthy meal is about more than just the food. The new year is a great time to start.

There is no doubt that parents play a primary role in fighting childhood obesity, but sustained improvements will require us to also focus on helping young people where they spend a substantial chunk of their time: school.

Earlier this year, Kaiser Permanente launched its national Thriving Schools initiative to make free, health-related resources available to all schools, and to give communities a focal point for making positive change.

The Thriving Schools website, http://thrivingschools.kaiserpermanente.org, features an abundance of low- or no-cost ideas teachers and staff can use to build healthy school environments. Using healthy foods as fundraisers and in-class rewards for children are two examples.

Thriving Schools also helps teachers integrate physical activity into learning because we know that when youngsters are active, they're less likely to be absent, their grades are better, and their test scores are higher.

In our local school district we've partnered with Project Eat, a project of the Alameda County Office of Education that has supported growing school gardens and integrating garden-based learning into the classroom.

The funding is also being used to engage schools in Fire Up Your Feet, a walking program that is part of the Thriving Schools offerings.

As part of its commitment to total health, this year Kaiser Permanente invested nearly $1 million to address childhood obesity in Southern Alameda County alone.

Funding is important, of course, but every school also needs a strong advocate to push for health in every meeting, activity, and event. That is a role any concerned citizen can fill.

Children are our future, and it's time that each of us makes their health a priority.

Given the tremendous toll obesity takes our emotional, physical and economic well-being, we all have a vested interest in teaching young people how to lead healthy lives.

Dr. Paul Espinas is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente Hayward Medical Center.