The COVID-19 pandemic opened a new worldwide platform to talk about epidemiology and public health. Public opinion is becoming progressively more knowledgeable about the determinants of a disease, the importance of prevention and following experts’ opinions to protect one’s health and the health of others.
The Gasol Foundation considers that it is the time to rethink some classical considerations about another highly prevalent, but silent pandemic: childhood obesity. Commonly, childhood obesity has been considered as a health issue that is highly dependent on healthcare services related to particular behaviors. Conversely, the scientific evidence shows that the root causes of childhood obesity and its consequences are deeply social. For this reason, it is considered necessary to state that childhood obesity is a social disease that needs to be tackled by the full involvement and have the commitment of all the key institutions within the public, private and nonprofit sectors. The social spread of childhood obesity is high because children are highly influenceable by the behaviors of family, peers, role models, as well as marketing, living conditions and educational laws that are determining their lifestyle in terms of nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and emotional well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the root causes of childhood obesity and added urgency to tackle it with effective health promotion strategies to tackle the childhood obesity pandemic with a focus on social justice and reducing disparities. On one hand, several studies including one by Gasol Foundation are showing that the four aforementioned lifestyles factors and their social determinants are strongly associated with the childhood obesity pandemic and other chronic diseases that are concerning risk factors of COVID-19 prognosis. On the other hand, both pandemics are showing a similar spreading pattern within high-income countries: higher and faster spreading within groups that are suffering social inequalities and experiencing poorer health outcomes.
So, is childhood obesity less urgent to be tackled than COVID-19? Or are both pandemics as urgent to be tackled?
The coexistence of the two pandemics produces a situation that may negatively affect the prevalence of childhood obesity. Staying at home helps to control the spread of COVID-19, but it is expected to worsen children’s health and well-being. Closures of schools, leisure time facilities, community centers and other activities around the world are completely justified to control the Coronavirus spread, but it is also damaging the overall communities healthy habits and well-being determining children’s development, especially for the most vulnerable ones. Usually their main source of stimulus and motivation to have an active and healthy lifestyle emerge from these key sectors because the neighborhoods and the built and social environment where they are growing are lacking healthy sources of inspiration. As if that were not enough, the widespread and severity of COVID-19 in lower income areas required a more strict and a longer time of confinement, especially in big metropolitan areas where the Gasol Foundation is historically focusing its efforts. Studies associated with consequences of staying at home are showing increased levels of sedentariness and screen-time, difficulties to access healthy and affordable food, difficulties to achieve sleep hours and quality recommendations and a higher level of stress of adults, usually transmitted to children. The subsequent lifestyle can deeply and negatively determine the weight status evolution of children.
As if that were not enough, the social and economic crisis is already causing an increase in unemployment and social inequalities, which is expected to negatively impact the social and economic well-being of the US in the coming years.
For all the above, the Gasol Foundation considers that promoting healthy lifestyles among socioeconomically vulnerable populations is now more urgent than ever and a key tool to tackle obesity and any further pandemic. Implementing effective health promotion strategies can contribute to the reduction of health and social disparities in the following years and decades.
Gasol Foundation response to prevent childhood obesity and promote healthy lifestyles during the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 outbreak forced the Gasol Foundation to stop any in-person activity. The months between March and August are typically full of activities from finishing programs that have been implemented throughout the school year and starting summer programs. Some examples are VIDA! Health & Wellness or ENERGY. Also, research studies and other events have also been stopped.
Yet, Gasol Foundation adapted to the situation by starting new initiatives to reach children and families with healthy messages. We also started new partnerships to be able to face new emerging threats to healthy lifestyles. Some examples are:
• Healthy Families: In response to the growing need among the families we serve, Gasol Foundation partnered with World Central Kitchen to provide hot meals and other necessities to families in Los Angeles, California, San Antonio, Texas, and Barcelona, Spain. The supplies also included educational activities created by the Gasol Foundation to keep kids active and practicing healthy habits at home, as well as promoting family cohesion.
• Healthy Kids Newsletters: programs that were interrupted have also received alternative healthy messages in the form of a newsletter with attached activities for kids to do at home. The newsletter is being distributed to nearly 7,000 families through partners in Los Angeles, California and San Antonio, Texas.
• Healthy Camp Kits: In response to shortage of summer activities, Gasol Foundation is putting together grab-and-go bags filled with activities for children to do through the summer time to make vacation time enjoyable and productive. These kits are distributed to families along with food distribution programs.
Moreover, the Gasol Foundation staff who would be typically implementing programs during this time have dedicated themselves to creating new projects and training in new areas. This will reinforce our programs and position us to be prepared to increase our reach and impact in the coming years.
The Gasol Foundation considers that it is essential to combine short-term and urgent approaches with mid and long-term projects capable of generating motivation and inspiration within those most in need. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis is confirming some fundamentals that society should take into account and that are completely aligned with the Gasol Foundation strategic vision:
• Prevention as the most valuable tool to: 1) protect individual and collective health; 2) Reduce health and social inequalities; 3) Bolster the development of children and communities.
• Research as the greatest source of knowledge to efficiently tackle societal challenges and as the greatest foundation for innovation.
• Universal access to health care services saves lives and can contribute to promote healthy lifestyles.
• Childhood obesity and NCDs prevention and healthy lifestyles promotion should be in the center of all policies.
All communities around the world, especially the most vulnerable ones and children, should have the opportunity to have access to healthy and affordable nutrition, to practice physical activity in safe and breathable environments, to guarantee an adequate sleep duration and quality, and to ensure the protection of their emotional well-being. These behaviors contribute to preventing childhood obesity and strengthen well-being in order to be ready for any further pandemic like COVID-19.