Do you ever get the feeling that some of today's worst health trends are so intractable nothing we do will make a significant difference? I have to admit that's what I was thinking while reading Monday's essay in this space by Truman Medical Centers CEO John Bluford. He argued that we all should promote better eating habits among our fellow citizens, including making sure healthful food choices are available in every community. Otherwise obesity, diabetes and other conditions will extract an ever-more terrible toll on individual lives and on the nation's health care system.

 

Bluford's essay was well-reasoned and eloquent, but as I read it, I found myself alternately nodding enthusiastically and shaking my head in skepticism. Yes, we must eliminate so-called food deserts. Yes, we must counter the false contention that fast food is cheaper than cooking healthy meals at home. Yes, we must help people understand that there are serious, lifelong implications to what we feed our kids. But even if we make the effort, can it really change behaviors?

Well, actually it can — and there's new evidence to prove it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December released a study showing a decline in obesity rates among New York City schoolchildren. The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that obesity rates fell from 21.9 to 20.7 percent between 2006-07 and 2010-11 among kids in kindergarten through eighth grade in New York's public schools. That's an overall drop of 5.5 percent.

Researchers suggest the improvements resulted from state regulations that upgraded nutrition in school cafeterias, increased nutrition education, encouraged physical activity and mandated school nurses to monitor children at risk for obesity and notify parents when there might be a problem.

There's still an awful long way to go. The CDC study found that the drop in obesity rates varied among ethnic groups and were much less dramatic in poor neighborhoods. That underscores Bluford's argument for eliminating food deserts and for health care leaders to step up their involvement in promoting good nutrition and exercise.

As New York City has shown, the situation isn't hopeless. We can make a difference. Let's.

Bill Santamour is managing editor of Hospitals & Health Networks magazine.