As children everywhere head back to school, filling their book bags with folders and their lunch boxes with snacks, families must keep a watchful eye on the types of foods that are filling their stomachs.

Childhood obesity is one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time, and the alarming rates of overeating among our children, particularly those of color, deserve our full attention. We know that African-American and Latino children are more likely to be poor, obese and live in unsafe communities where there are few opportunities for physical activity, fewer supermarkets and limited access to healthy food options.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.

These high rates of childhood obesity have placed our children on a dangerous path, laden with social discrimination that could lead to low self-esteem and poor academic performance as well as medical complications that can last a lifetime.

It has been proven that obese young people have an 80 percent chance of being obese adults. Even more alarming is that obese children are at risk for associated adult health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.

If entire communities —schools, families, churches and policymakers—don’t act now, the results can and will be devastating. 

The NAACP is currently focusing its efforts on ensuring that healthy foods are served in inner-city school districts. We know that when sugary foods and beverages are sold in school stores and vending machines, students eat more unhealthy snacks and take in more calories.

Our Tennessee and New York State Conferences are working towards getting school districts to adopt competitive food guidelines that go above and beyond federal guidelines. The Mississippi State Conference is working with its partners to provide opportunities for physical activity in a safe environment. 

For many families the war on obesity will be fought at the kitchen table as parents and adult caregivers usually oversee their children’s diet at home. Still, it’s important to note that the healthy choice has to be the easy choice. Parents who have access to healthier food options have an easier time ensuring their children develop health eating habits.

Exercise is also an important piece of the puzzle. We have got to get our kids running, jumping, playing, moving. By taking an additional 2,000 steps per day, an individual can begin the process of stopping weight gain.

Our children need safe environments to facilitate exercise. We have to improve community walkability and public transportation, enhance recreational spaces, and allow for better access to school playgrounds outside of school hours.

Finally, we must also urge state and local lawmakers to ensure that healthy school lunches are being served in schools and that communities have better access to healthy, affordable foods in corner stores and local grocery stores.

People are largely impacted by their environment. If the environment does not support a healthy lifestyle or healthy choices, it will be difficult for some to change they their behavior.

Curbing this quiet epidemic will require a community-wide effort. Through mobilizing our members on the ground and partnering with individuals in the public health community, the NAACP is working to change the tide of child obesity in communities of color. Join us in the fight to save our children.

As our kids head back to school, let’s remember to teach the importance of reading, writing, arithmetic and health!

Shavon Arline-Bradley is the Senior Director of Health Programs for the NAACP.