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updated: 1/27/2011 4:53 PM

Kane County coming to grips with unhealthy kids

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The key message in Dr. Richard Jackson's presentation to Kane County officials Thursday morning hit home with a single image.

The photo cast onto a theater-sized projection screen was of a street marking. It was the kind a driver would see painted on the pavement to designate a bicycle lane. Indeed, half the photo was an image of a simple bicycle. Beneath it were the words: "This one runs on fat and saves you money." The other half was the image of a simple car. Beneath it were the words, "This one runs on money and makes you fat."

Jackson is a pediatrician, professor at UCLA and a former director at the Centers for Disease Control. He praised Kane County for being a national leader in working toward creating a healthier community through better land use and transportation planning. The comments came at a workshop addressing the county's health status improvement efforts.

"You are what the rest of America's counties need to become," Jackson told a crowd at Waubonsee Community College.

Kane County, like many suburban communities, is coming to grips with increasing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes. Part of that comes from mimicking the sedentary lifestyles of parents who spend far more time working and driving than anything else, Jackson said. Another part of it comes from poorly designed communities. Aspects of that poor design include: cul de sacs that prevent children from safely walking to friends' homes, poorly located schools that make riding a bike impossible and a basic lack of public transportation that's caused ever longer commutes.

Poor health is even becoming a problem for America's youth and national security. Jackson said two out of seven volunteers for the U.S. military are rejected now because of lack of general fitness. He said even a basic increase in the amount of time walking would do wonders for the country.

"We have sold off the United States to the oil companies in the 20th century," Jackson said. "Every mother in this room drives twice as much as her mother because of how we built America."

Over dependence on driving is one of many issues Kane County wants to address by 2020, at least for the sake of children. Without changing the culture, Kane County's children are headed for disaster, said Paul Kuehnert, executive director of the county health department.

"Health experts are saying the children of this generation will have shorter, sicker lives than their grandparents," he said. "We have to reshape the environment. We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice for our families."

The county has a slew of changes officials plan to make a reality by 2020. They include:

• Making healthy food both more affordable and more available;

• Increasing the number of parks and open spaces;

• Pushing the creation of wellness programs in county businesses;

• Creating development incentives that encourage gardening and local agriculture;

• Making walking, biking and public transportation attractive commuting options.

The county will even start a new grant program to make those ideas a reality. Starting next month, worthy action plans will be eligible for grants of between $500 and $10,000.