Shaping New Jersey into Healthier State

Mary O’Dowd, New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services Commissioner

Obesity rates have climbed dramatically both in New Jersey and nationally. In New Jersey alone, the percentage of residents who are obese was 24 percent in 2010, which has risen from 14 percent in 1995. This rise in obesity is harming the overall health of residents as obesity is a contributing cause of many other health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer.

If an individual is obese their likelihood of having cancer is 21 percent higher than if they were at a healthy weight. The odds of having a stroke is two times higher, of having heart disease is nearly three times higher and diabetes is five times higher than if they weren’t obese or overweight.

Our children are also at risk. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years. In New Jersey, 15 percent of children are obese and the state has the nation’s highest incidence of obesity (18.4 percent) among low-income children 2 to 5 years old. If current trends continue, today’s children will be the first generation in our nation’s history to live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents.

To help reverse these trends, the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) is committed to increasing access to the tools residents need to lead a healthy lifestyle. Through the Department’s ShapingNJ initiative, we are working with our partners to change our environment and culture to “make the healthy choice the easy choice: for all residents. ShapingNJ: The State Partnership for Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity Prevention is a public-private partnership of 170 diverse stakeholders, including businesses, community-based organizations, and national and state leaders working together for policy and environmental changes that will make New Jersey a healthier place to live.

In the past, obesity prevention efforts have been focused on the individual. However, education about being physically active and eating healthy is not enough. Residents must have access to recreational facilities and nutritious foods where they live, work, learn and play.

Community support for access to healthy foods and increased physical activity is important to obesity prevention for both children and adults. Many environmental factors and policies affect physical activity and nutrition choices available to people. DHSS and other private funding partners are supporting communities through ShapingNJ to implement changes that improve access to healthy food and physical activity, including cultivating community gardens, helping small vendors sell healthy snacks and making it easier to walk and bike. Earlier this year, the Department joined with Walgreens, the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids and Partners for Health to fund 10 local projects with grants ranging from $7,500 to $15,000. Grants were awarded to the counties of Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth, Somerset and Warren; the city of Paterson, and the townships of Irvington, Nutley and Montclair. The Department and partners are providing technical assistance to the projects and other learning opportunities to these communities so they can create healthier environments. For example, in Warren County they improved walking trails and provided trail maps to increase access to easy exercise. Additionally, in Irvington the funding was used to develop a community garden and walking club for seniors.

Healthcare professionals play a crucial role in educating patients about healthy behaviors and lifestyles. One important way we can help build a healthier population is by promoting and supporting new mothers who breastfeed. Research has shown that, during the first year of life, breast milk is the most nutritious food for an infant. And infants who are exclusively breastfed for nine months have a 30% reduced risk of being overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a baby’s risk of becoming an overweight child goes down with each month of breastfeeding. Currently, New Jersey’s rate for mothers who exclusively breastfeed at 3 months is 26.8 percent, which is lower than the national average of 35 percent according to CDC’s Breastfeeding Report Card.

Shaping NJ recognizes that hospitals play a crucial role in increasing the initiation and duration of exclusive breastfeeding. This year, the Department awarded grants to 10 maternity hospitals of $10,000 each to support implementation of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. This initiative is a World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) program that encourages and recognizes hospitals that promote and support breastfeeding, by implementing appropriate policies, practices and staff education. In the United States, there are119 Baby Friendly designated hospitals and birth centers—in New Jersey there are none. I look forward to announcing the first hospital in New Jersey that receives a Baby Friendly designation.

These hospitals are making great progress in making their environments more baby-friendly—for example—having newborns stay with their mothers rather than in nurseries and no longer providing formula samples as part of a new mother gift bag. Last week, I convened a roundtable discussion at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, to highlight their changes and talk with providers and patients about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and what we can do to support new mothers.

Establishing healthy eating habits early in life puts children on the path to a healthy future. Daycare centers and schools are in a unique position to promote healthy eating and physical activity. New Jersey has made great strides to bring healthier foods to our schools. The nutritional standards for meals served in New Jersey schools are more progressive than the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). New Jersey also limits access to foods that are not part of the USDA school meals program, such as snacks sold in vending machines and school stores.

Most recently, Governor Chris Christie signed legislation designating Farm to School Week as the last week in September to encourage children and their families to increase their consumption of fresh produce. To celebrate this year, the Department joined the New Jersey Department of Agriculture on a tour of Riverside Elementary School’s garden in Princeton. The garden is used as an outdoor classroom to educate children about the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and illustrates the connection between a healthy diet and success in school. The Department is also working with our sister agency, Department of Children and Families, to initiate changes in licensed child care centers that will ensure healthy food offerings, decrease television viewing time and improve opportunities for physical activity at the centers. These proposed changes aim to improve the health, nutrition and fitness of children in child care centers.

By focusing on a variety of settings, we can ensure that all New Jerseyans—whether at school, in the community or at a health care facility—are in environments that support and encourage good nutrition and physical activity. Through our partnership, state officials, health professionals, private companies, government and school leaders, transportation officials and nonprofit organizations are able to coordinate efforts and maximize resources that will “make the healthy choice the easy choice” for New Jersey’s residents.

For more information on the Department’s Shaping NJ initiative please visit

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