The effect of overweight and obesity in childhood are cumulative and many overweight children grow up to become obese adults. The resulting health problems will place an additional burden on our future healthcare systems. Because overweight and obesity are a public health priority for me and, in particular, childhood overweight and obesity, I have established a Special Action Group on Obesity (SAGO) comprising representatives from Department of Health, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, the Health Service Executive, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and safefood to examine and progress a number of issues to address the problem of obesity.
Progress has been made on the Healthy Eating guidelines and there is strong support for the Calories on Menus initiative, which I launched recently. Arising out of the Irish Presidency of the EU and the Informal Meeting of Health Ministers, the EU Commissioner supported the call for an EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity to be developed by the EU High Level Group On Nutrition and Physical Activity. This Plan has been drafted and will be finalised in 2014.
SAGO has also developed a Report to bring our consumption of Top Shelf Foods into line with the Healthy Eating Guidelines. Measures include healthy vending machine policy, healthy school meals programme and voluntary codes of practice relating to the marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
I recently launched the safefood/HI/HSE three year Childhood Obesity Campaign – Childhood Obesity: Let’s take it on – one small step at a time - which is designed to create greater awareness among parents about the threat of childhood overweight and obesity and provide practical tips to help address the problem with the ultimate aim of effecting behaviour change.
The Healthy Ireland policy supports a whole-of-government approach to address the determinants and predictors of health and well-being, many of which fall outside the health sector, including those which are of relevance in the education sector. In addition to Healthy Ireland, my Department is leading the implementation of Outcome 1: Healthy, Active Children, a priority commitment of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the policy framework for children and young people. This includes development of an implementation plan and effective working arrangements to implement the policy and to ensure alignment with Healthy Ireland.
Work has commenced on supporting improved child health and well-being in partnership with the Department of Education and Skills and the other partners in the education sector. To build on recent progress in partnering in the launch of Active Schools Week and the Active Schools Flag initiative, work has commenced on ensuring a co-ordinated cross-sectoral approach to support schools and teachers in improving child health and well-being across a range of themes (nutrition, physical activity, SPHE, mental health etc) and in developing and putting in place a co-ordinated support infrastructure involving the HSE.
Ireland is a member of the wider ‘Schools for Health’ Network in Europe. In Ireland, the Health Promoting School Initiative (as defined by the WHO) is lead by the HSE. It operates at both primary and post-primary level.
In a Health Promoting School (HPS), health is viewed in its broadest sense, and includes the physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of health. It recognises that health is influenced by many factors beyond the individual, and aims to create a setting that supports health and healthy choices. It is a long-term initiative aimed at involving the school community - students, staff and parents/guardians - in a whole-school approach to health and well-being.
The HPS process adopts a ‘whole school approach’ that goes beyond the classroom and includes:
- Creating a healthy physical and social school environment
- Building health skills and life competencies through the school curriculum and other learning opportunities
- Developing and implementing school policies that promote health and well-being
- Strengthening partnerships for health, including linkages to families and the wider school community.
The HSE's Health Promotion Officers support and guide schools throughout the process. Health Promoting Schools is a key action outlined in the HSE - Health & Wellbeing Division Operational Plan for 2014, which committed to supporting the implementation of the initiative in 465 schools. The HSE is currently supporting over 450 schools through the Health Promoting School process.