Image: Elementary school cafeteria
Mike Derer  /  AP FILE
Trays of carrot and celery sticks with low-fat ranch dip, orange slices and beef hot dogs with whole wheat buns sit in the cafeteria at Columbus Elementary School in Lodi, N.J. New Jersey is starting a new agency to better coordinate programs aimed at preventing obesity.
updated 5/30/2007 11:57:37 AM ET 2007-05-30T15:57:37

New Jersey’s health department is escalating the battle against the bulge by starting a new Office of Nutrition and Fitness to better coordinate programs to prevent obesity.

The agency is particularly needed in New Jersey — possibly the first state to create such a government body.

The Garden State has the highest percentage of overweight and obese children under age 5, at 17.7 percent, according to a 2004 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Fred M. Jacobs, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Senior Services, said young people are a crucial target for the new agency because it’s easier to instill good diet and exercise habits to prevent obesity in the young than to reverse weight problems later; adults almost always gain back any weight they lose — and then some.

Jacobs says he wants to tackle the obesity problem through education, support groups and encouraging physical activity, rather than by banning particular foods. One goal is to “de-normalize” the massive portions served in restaurants.

“I want to do that without creating a further stigma on individual people,” Jacobs said. “It’s bad enough when you’re fat that people think less of you. I don’t want the government piling on.”

He is mulling the idea of having schools notify parents, via report cards, about children with weight problems.

Morton Downey, spokesman for The Obesity Society, which represents doctors, researchers and others in the field, said he knows of no other state with a dedicated agency fighting obesity, although federal grants in recent years have helped numerous states develop plans to fight obesity. He called New Jersey’s initiative a very encouraging step that could become a national model.

“There’s not really been an institutional base for people with ideas to go to gain support for their ideas” and funding for new programs, Downey said.

Obesity has become the country’s No. 2 cause of preventable death, after smoking. Excess weight raises risk of heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, asthma, depression, arthritis and several types of cancer.

In New Jersey, almost 23 percent of residents are considered obese and another 37 percent are overweight, according to the CDC.

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Setting up the anti-obesity agency was one of many recommendations in the New Jersey Obesity Prevention Action Plan, written by a large task force established by the state Legislature.

Jacobs said the new agency will begin operations within weeks, and may be able to win more federal and private grant money. He said it will coordinate spending of more than $2 million in nutrition and fitness programs, including promoting physical activity at all ages, providing fresh fruit and vegetables to eligible women, children and senior citizens, and encouraging breast-feeding, which can reduce the baby’s chances of a weight problem later.

Other state agencies will be working with the health department. The Agriculture Department, for example, has been boosting the number of farmers markets bringing fresh produce to seniors and city residents whose local stores don’t stock much produce, said its head, Charles Kuperus.

More than half of all schools have already complied with the department’s new rules limiting the amount of high-calorie, high-sugar foods available, a strategy meant to prevent kids from bypassing nutritious lunches and getting French fries or snacks from vending machines, he said. Every school is expected to be in compliance by the September deadline.

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