June 13, 2003 – The young people of today face many challenges that their parents never had to contend with, including serious health issues early in life linked to the growing phenomenon of obesity in infants, children and adolescents.
Nationally, "the proportion of children who are overweight has tripled since 1980," Health Commissioner Mavis Matthew says. "This epidemic is not limited to any particular age, race, ethnic group or gender."
These facts and their implications are the focus of a Childhood Obesity Conference that will take place in the coming week on St. Thomas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the V.I. Health Department and the Women Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program are the co-sponsors. But the project is the brainchild of conference coordinator Edward C. Jones, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences at Cornell University.
"Facing challenges for our kids' sake" is the theme of the conference, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. Jones, a nutritionist on St. Thomas for years, hopes that many positive things will come from it.
One goal is to raise the level of concern about childhood obesity "as a high public-health issue," Jones said. He hopes to see a multi-agency focus on the issue locally come out of the conference — involving the Health, Education, Human Services and Housing Parks and Recreation Departments, along with community organizations.
All day Wednesday and Thursday and on Friday morning, in lectures and on panels, conference presenters will share research findings on such topics as the causes of childhood obesity, family and community interrelationships in nutritional outcomes, cultural and behavioral issues, support structures for prevention and intervention, strategies for change, and at-risk implications for Type 2 diabetes, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
"We want to establish a real sense of urgency about collecting data," Jones said.
The conference is aimed at both health-care professionals and lay persons. According to a release, the target audiences include "everyone who is impacting the nutrition of children, as well as those involved in food planning, nutritional analysis, diet recommendations, food preparation, delivery to school programs." And also "health policymakers, educators, nurses, physicians, teachers, counselors, parents, public-health professionals, educational curriculum developers and the general public."
"Strategies to Address Childhood Obesity through Food and Nutrition Service Programs" is the topic to be addressed by Judy F. Wilson, nutrition service staff director of the USDA's nutrition and evaluation analysis office.
Dr. Bert Petersen, a Virgin Islander who is a nationally recognized cancer authority in New York, will talk on "Childhood Obesity and Cancer Risk." Petersen, who is leading efforts to develop a regional cancer-care center at Roy L. Schneider Hospital, is a vocal advocate for promoting lifestyle changes and screening to detect breast cancer early.
In addition to identifying problems, the conference will focus on culturally appropriate methodologies and models for intervention and change that have proven successful.
Fabiola Gaines, author of the books "Slim Down Sister" and "The Soul Food Diabetic Cookbook," will talk about creative communication at a plenary session and address "Culturally-specific Dietary Factors in Childhood Obsesity" in a panel presentation.
Jones said he hopes that people concerned about the problem of overweight children will be energized by the examples of positive intervention.
The conference takes place at the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort. Registration is Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, with the opening session set for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Registration is $75, which includes lunch on Wednesday and Thursday and continental breakfast all three days. Some scholarship assistance will be available to local WIC program participants.
For the full conference agenda, background on presenters and more information, visit the Caribbean Childhood Obesity Web site. Or call the WIC offices on St. Thomas at 776-1770.
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