Meeting the twin challenges of asthma and obesity in Atlanta

Smog. In Atlanta, we know the term all too well, and for parents in the know, it has become a warning sign about the air our children breathe. Scientists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency caution parents about sending our kids outside on hot, smoggy summer days because ozone will harm their growing bodies. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta reminds us that asthma is the No. 1 reason children are admitted to its Atlanta hospitals, and these occurrences increase on smoggy days.

In 2010 we also learned Georgia has the second-highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation. The reasons are tied both to eating and to physical activity — too much junk food and not enough active time.

As parents, we want the best for our children — unstructured playtime outdoors, time spent in nature, plenty of fresh, healthy Georgia-grown foods, and as little as possible of the pollutants and toxins that can wreak havoc on their young bodies. Can we have it both ways in Atlanta? Can we get our kids active outside, take family nature walks, play sports — and stay away from nasty car and truck exhaust and avoid smog?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. With good information to guide us and by making minor changes in schedules and habits, families and schools can help kids be active while also reducing their risk from hot weather smog and year-round pollution.

Tuesday at Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Mayor Kasim Reed and Elder Bernice King joined with Mothers & Others for Clean Air to launch a new school initiative that helps battle both asthma and obesity. The school Air Quality Index flag program will make air quality visible to the entire school community with large, colored flags that fly daily reflecting the day’s air quality. Green is good; yellow means moderate; orange is unhealthy; and red is very unhealthy.

The flag program visually alerts children, teachers, coaches, administrators and parents about Atlanta’s smog each day by highlighting good air quality days as well as bad ones. Green and yellow days offer opportunities for teachers and coaches to encourage their students to get outside and get moving. Orange and red flags make it easier to monitor poor air quality, helping the many students and staff living with asthma to avoid a serious asthma trigger. Physical education teachers and coaches can make schedule and location changes to reduce exposure and reduce risk when air quality is poor.

With a grant from the Captain Planet Foundation and technical assistance from Farmer D Organics, the Young Women’s Leadership Academy also is starting a school garden, dedicated to Coretta Scott King, with strawberries and onions already planted for spring.

Farm-to-school programs are spreading quickly in Georgia, along with efforts to get soda and other sugary snacks out of schools. With these efforts, together with programs to improve the air we breathe and reduce kids’ exposure to pollution, as well as asthma education programs, we can raise healthy, active kids with healthy lungs.

Laura Seydel of Atlanta co-founded Mothers & Others for Clean Air with Stephanie Blank and is chairperson of the Captain Planet Foundation.