It’s no secret that obesity is a serious health issue in the United States. Obesity rates have doubled for adults and preschool children over the last 30 years, and they’ve tripled for school age children and adolescents. Recently, the national childhood obesity rate has leveled off, and California is even among a few states that have seen modest decreases in childhood obesity rates.

But we still have a long way to go, and it helps to have youth advocates on your side.

That’s why the 9th Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference on May 30 – June 2, 2017 is so important. Nearly 2,000 experts from across the country are converging at San Diego’s Manchester Grand Hyatt to discuss emerging research, best practices, community-based efforts and effective policy strategies that encourage healthy eating and physical activity practices for children, adolescents and their families. #COC17

The conference is “the nation’s largest, most influential collaboration of professionals dedicated to combating pediatric obesity/overweight,” according to the hosts, which include The California Department of Public Health, California Department of Education, Nutrition Policy Institute UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, The California Endowment and Kaiser Permanente.

But some of the most valued attendees may actually be the approximately 45 youth advocates from organizations around California, according to Lizzy Cooper, Program Coordinator, Center for Community Health at University of California, San Diego’s (UCSD) School of Medicine.

Youth Involvement Is Key

For the Childhood Obesity Conference, UCSD partnered with the California Department of Public Health to lead the youth initiatives at the conference. They worked with youth groups around California to arrange for students and chaperons to attend the conference, as well as arranged scholarships for lodging and meals.

“Most importantly, we advocated for elevating the youth voices within the conference” says Cooper. “When you’re talking about child obesity, you really can’t have a meaningful discussion without the voices of adolescents. These young people are the ones most impacted, and they are the health focus. But they are also the experts.”

Youth groups are helping to plan various conference elements, such as a panel discussion, spoken word presentations, roundtable discussion, poster contest and even a youth lounge for networking. Suriyaan Hussein, who is a senior at the Preuss School UCSD, will co-host a roundtable discussion.

“When you put youth in the unusual position of elevating their voices, you discover things that adults tend to forget,” explains Cooper. “You gain the youth perspective and mentality. And those young people provide information that adults with academic degrees simply can’t observe in the same way. Many of these young people are first generation and the children of immigrants. They understand the cultural context and how to best approach certain topics in a nuanced and effective way.”

Meet the YAC at UCSD

At UCSD’s Center for Community Health, the Youth Advisory Council (YAC) plays an important role in advising on health and community issues, as well as in organizing the youth participation at the conference. YAC is comprised of students from high schools around San Diego. They all share a passion for improving the lives of community members, with a special focus on residents in neighborhoods that have experienced health disparities.

“We look at these YAC members as champions for healthy living, not only for youth but for their entire communities,” adds Cooper. “We’re building young leaders, but really we’re elevating their voices. This is not something we can develop from the inside; this is intrinsic knowledge that these youth voices offer us.  We are fortunate to receive this feedback, because every day they come up with ideas that blow the professionals out of the water.”

Special thanks to these youth organizations, which played important roles in planning during the obesity conference:

  • 4-H Program- Lakeside, California
  • City Heights Youth for Change- San Diego, California
  • Day One – San Gabriel Valley, California
  • Jóvenes SANOS- Capitola, California
  • KidWorks- Santa Ana, California
  • Los Angeles County Department of Public Health- Los Angeles, California
  • Mid-City CAN- San Diego, California
  • PHI – Center for Wellness and Nutrition- Sacramento, California
  • Santa Ana Health and Nutrition Advocates- Santa Ana, California
  • San Bernardino County Department of Public Health- San Bernardino
  • Snowline Unified School District- Phelan, California
  • San Diego American Indian Health Center- San Diego, California
  • The Bigger Picture- San Francisco, California and Los Angeles, California
  • UC Cooperative Extension – Bay Area, California
  • UC San Diego Center for Community Health, Youth Advisory Council- San Diego, California
  • United Women of East Africa- San Diego, California

Related Reading:

The UC ANR Nutrition Policy Institute is one of the co-hosts of the conference. Read this Q&A with Pat Crawford, Senior Director of Research, about obesity and nutrition.