Catholic Charities Moves on Childhood Obesity: Chicago Agency Ties Federal Awareness Campaign to Long-Stancing Food Programs

Article excerpt

Theologians who study Pope John Paul II's theology of the body might consider adding a new chapter to that work, a chapter the late, athletically inclined pope would no doubt approve, a chapter for the too many Americans in deep, deep trouble. The wrong kind of calories and not enough exercise have created an unprecedented childhood obesity epidemic in the United States.

The statistics are both staggering and unconscionable. According to the federal government, "over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America is overweight or obese. The numbers are even higher in African American and Hispanic communities, where nearly 40% of the children are overweight or obese."

Two years ago President Barack Obama established a federal Task Force on Childhood Obesity that is headed by Michelle Obama. The first lady created a public awareness campaign called "Let's Move" with the goal of reducing childhood obesity to 5 percent by 2030. As part of this effort, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created an initiative called "Let's Move Faith and Communities."

"It's clear that when it comes to ensuring our children's health and wellbeing, when it comes to tackling childhood obesity, our faith-based and community organizations have a critical role to play," according to Michelle Obama's statement on the Let's Move website.

At least one of the 195 dioceses in the United States has signed on to the Let's Move Campaign. Catholic Charities in Michelle Obama's hometown, Chicago, has jumped in with both feet.

"The Catholic church has always been engaged with the government to address hunger with food programs," said Angel Gutierrez, vice president of community development and outreach services for the Chicago archdiocese's Catholic Charities. Gutierrez cites the Women, Infants, and Children Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, among others in which Catholic Charities participates.

"We try to connect the dots and address an array of issues facing the communities we serve," Gutierrez said. "We partner with many other organizations and try to co-locate multiple initiatives at our sites." Catholic Charities is the largest social service provider in Chicago and includes 16 food centers across the region.

"Through our nutrition programs we provide foods that reflect the basic principles of the dietary guidelines to include more fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy," said Diane Nunley, Chicago Catholic Charities' associate director of special supplemental food and nutrition.

But it wasn't until Catholic Charities' 2009 Summer Food Program that Gutierrez realized that kids needed more than healthy food. "We began to understand that kids are often sedentary and we needed to find ways to get them engaged in physical activity," he said.

The Summer Food Program served more than 311,000 meals at 208 sites serving 21,000 children last year.

In late 2010, Gutierrez attended the official launch of the Let's Move Faith and Communities in Washington, D. …