ATLANTA — Efforts to get kids exercising and eating healthier received a boost Wednesday in a state where officials say nearly 40 percent of children are obese.
The Coca-Cola Foundation pledged $3.8 million to a number of programs, a notable gift from the charitable arm of a soft-drink manufacturer that has faced criticism for contributing to the obesity epidemic with high-calorie, sugary drinks.
The move comes, however, as Atlanta-based Coca-Cola tries to make lower-calorie drinks and nutrition information more widely available. The company also is promising not to advertise to children under age 12.
“I am the first one to say that changing habits is not easy. But this is a complicated societal issue that affects all of us,” said Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent. “We know it is more fun to consume calories than to spend them, we know that. How can we play a role in making the spending of calories a little more fun and movement a little more fun?”
The money will support several programs, including Gov. Nathan Deal’s Georgia SHAPE program and Mayor Kasim Reed’s Centers of Hope program. Georgia SHAPE addresses childhood obesity by working with schools to increase physical activity and provide parents with information about their child’s health.
The Centers of Hope initiative serves vulnerable and at-risk students by connecting them with physical activity, nutrition and leadership programs.
Childhood obesity has been a problem in Georgia for years. In 2010, a state report found that obesity-related hospitalizations of children in Georgia cost $2.1 million a year.
As part of the Georgia SHAPE program, students are evaluated across several fitness categories, and the results are provided confidentially to parents with the goal of inspiring conversations about health and fitness. The governor, who attended Wednesday’s announcement with Kent and Reed, said Georgia has seen some improvement in decreasing childhood obesity in the state.
“We still got a long way to go but improvement is improvement,” Deal said. “You’re not gonna just drop this weight; you’re not gonna just change your life instantaneously. It is a commitment over a period of time. And that commitment is already beginning to show the results that we want.”
Deal added the Georgia SHAPE program aims to make fitness fun and the Coca-Cola gift will allow the state to expand the program.
“Quite frankly, school time is precious and school budgets are also sometimes very squeezed in terms of having any extra money to do anything,” Deal said. “This will be the extra money that will allow us to do the things we want to do.”
Of the gift, $1 million will be directed to support the Centers of Hope program in Atlanta and allow it to expand from two pilot locations to 10 city recreation centers. Funds will also be directed to Walk Georgia, which was created by the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension and focuses on community-oriented physical activity programs.