Ernesto Gasco: "Parents' job insecurity has greatly affected children's nutrition"

The Government has presented the national plan for the reduction of childhood obesity 2022-2030. The High Commissioner for the Fight against Child Poverty, Ernesto Gasco, has been working for months on this strategy that seeks to reduce the number of children affected by this situation by 25% in eight years. "Children and young people with fewer economic resources suffer twice as much obesity as those belonging to the wealthiest families in the country," explains the Basque socialist in an interview with elDiario.es, in which he also analyzes the challenges ahead for the newly launched strategy.

They have presented this Friday the National Strategic Plan for the Reduction of Childhood Obesity 2022-2030. What are the general lines of this document?

The complete document has more than 200 measures, six performance environments and more than 250 pages. It is a diagnosis that detects that we have a problem: 40% of Spanish young people or children, that is, four out of ten, are obese or overweight. The World Health Organization (WHO) also describes it as the epidemic of the 21st century.

What do we act on? On a personal level; that the boy, the girl or the young person have a safe environment where they feel comfortable and can also develop their affectivity, that helps to avoid obesity. The second area is physical activity, sports and teamwork values. The third is education and training, how to get these children to know the local gastronomy and learn to cook anything simple. And the fourth, the family. It is curious, seven out of ten fathers or mothers do not understand that their children have obesity or excess weight problems. This means that action must be taken so that families, together with their children, carry out a process of transversal change.

Is access to a healthy lifestyle a class privilege?

We could say that at this time yes. The data also shows that the population with fewer economic resources, vulnerable families or children and young people in these environments, have twice the obesity and overweight than those belonging to the wealthiest social groups or families in the country. Specifically, 10% of children are obese in families with greater resources, while in families with fewer resources it reaches 24%. In Spain there is an added element, and it is reflected in the plan, the population of gypsy origin. Obesity in these settings, especially male obesity, is not frowned upon by specific cultural or traditional values.

What consequences does childhood obesity have in the short and long term?

First, it harms health and, in addition, it is very damaging to self-esteem. At this time we live in a society closely linked to the image. People who are not overweight have much easier access to the labor market than people who are overweight. Therefore, emotional well-being and lack of rest are damages that significantly impair the potential development of a healthy life.

Is society aware of the consequences of childhood obesity for health?

I do not think so. In the coordination of the work, the first surprise came when the scientific table said that 80% of the causes of death in Spain are linked to cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure, stroke or heart failure; the second are tumors and the third, diabetes and other conditions. And it turns out that, fundamentally, they are all related to overweight and obesity.

There is data from the OECD that ensures that for every euro invested in fighting obesity, six euros would be saved in socio-health costs in the medium and long term, if it is done effectively. The plan has this transversal vision because it is an issue of public health, social inequality and economic intelligence for a country. At this time, in Europe, curiously, the countries with the worst data are all Mediterranean: Cyprus, Italy and Greece.

Where has the Mediterranean diet gone?

The Mediterranean diet has largely been abandoned. Data has doubled in ten years. Job insecurity has greatly affected the fact that you arrive home tired with little desire to dedicate yourself to cooking something or shopping for ready-made products. It has hurt a lot, especially the little ones. Obesity and overweight figures have doubled in 20 years. To this is added the abandonment of the purchase of fresh products. Fruit and vegetables are very important, but also meat and fresh fish.

Does this strategy contemplate any measure related to the conciliation of fathers and mothers so that they can dedicate some time to feeding their children instead of betting on processed fast foods?

What the plan intends is to work with the protagonists, who are children and young people, even incorporating gastronomy into the school curriculum, the value of cooking food themselves while having fun. For us it is very important. We already have a pilot experience at this time in a school in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in a neighborhood with a very weak economic situation. The children receive school tutoring, play in the schoolyard and learn by cooking from a very young age to make traditional Canarian products. That is part of the program so that they also help their parents.

This plan also includes social and childhood rights. In our country, children have the right, for example, to live in decent conditions, to feed themselves with dignity. there is a program [que recoge que] school canteens and cafeterias of institutes and universities have spaces for green, perishable and healthy products; not just processed products. We are aware that it is difficult to reverse habits and customs. So, what we are looking for between now and 2030 is to reduce childhood obesity by 25%.

In this context, what relevance can access to the school canteen have for all children? How can it benefit them?

We bet that schools, whether or not they have a split schedule, have open canteens so that families with fewer possibilities can access a healthy, wholesome, balanced meal a day with revised menus. We are finding that, due to the economic situation, some autonomous communities want to save and we inform them that these expenses are essential to guarantee equal opportunities for boys and girls throughout Spain. It is not a whim, it is a necessity.

Taking into account the influence of catering services in school cafeterias, do you support a model in which schools have a kitchen and food is prepared daily in these facilities?

We always advocate that the best possible decision be made. We do not exclude any because there will be times when, for whatever reason, it is not possible, but the best option is a kitchen in the school. If it cannot be at school, let it be shared by several centers due to proximity. Yes, a homemade food preparation service is good. This allows children to get used to the flavors of cuisine prepared in the healthiest way possible and provides culinary culture.

What socioeconomic, age and gender trends have you detected when analyzing the evolution of childhood obesity in our country?

There is a gender gap. Girls and boys do not have the same behavior because when they are adolescents, due to social pressure and aesthetics, girls tend to try to be thinner and thinner, and that is a problem. The plan wants to prevent eating disorders. Everyone has to be happy with their own body and with their own characteristics, being healthy and not having unnecessary excess weight. If you are a girl, the higher your economic power, the less obese or less overweight there is. In boys, throughout adolescence, there is not as much variation between families with more resources and those with fewer resources because overweight is not interpreted in the same way.

Do you advocate banning sugary drink and junk food machines in places where there are children, such as schools and hospitals?

I believe more in promoting than in prohibiting. I saw it in London many years ago, not just to tackle childhood obesity, but it should be for the whole country as well. I defend that the vending machines that are close to schools, school canteens or institutes should also have fruit, natural products, fruit juices and healthy drinks. That should be the offer that should exist, or the one that we should promote and help with all possible measures.

Another measure: let's recover the water sources in our cities and in our streets. It is essential that children can go down to the street to play and have a space to play in the squares. In addition, if when they are thirsty they get used to drinking healthy, fresh water from a public source, we prevent them from switching to other types of drinks before their time. We prevent a lot. That is also a simple policy, at the local and municipal level that we must recover.

And what is the responsibility of the food industry in betting on an improvement in the nutrition of minors?

The industry with which we have worked wants to evolve and move forward because what they want, deep down, is for them to do well. At this time, Coca-Cola has more income in Spain from Coca-Cola Zero than from regular Coca-Cola. I imagine that we can export that to other brands. These are the reference models we are committed to, greater self-regulation to find formulas that make your product healthier: the reduction of salt, sugar, palm oil... Another example: it is very important that that when you go to any place to eat they give you a bottle of fresh tap water, as is done in France and Italy. This helps you lead a much healthier life.

The strategy contains many measures that require an economic injection and the plan is not specific on this matter. How much money is needed to launch and have a successful strategy to fight childhood obesity?

There are fifteen ministries affected. Only from public resources, the programs that collect all these departments come to suppose approximately around 1,200 million euros until the year 2030. They are necessary and essential public resources. We also want civil society, companies in the food sector, to get involved in this plan. And for this we want to move private resources that are not accounted for there.

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