Obesity policy strategies win national competition

March 26, 2013 By Karen Faster

A team of five students from the UW–Madison La Follette School won first place for their strategies to combat childhood obesity in a national public affairs competition in Washington, D.C., March 22-23.

Miriam Palmer, Selina Eadie, Andrew Walsh, Norma-Jean Simon and Jiaqi Lu won the Policy Solutions Challenge USA. They also won the Midwest regional competition held March 1-2 at Ohio State University.

The five presented their strategies using policy and cost-benefit analysis to support their recommendations that states adopt three anti-obesity policies to reach children at all stages in their lives. 

“The first policy recommendation is to establish minimum standards of infant feeding and physical activity for child-care providers,” Palmer says. “Providers would receive additional state reimbursements for implementing more of the standards. Child-care settings are already regulated, and this policy would take advantage of that system to reach children between birth and 5 years.” 

A five-year pilot of obesity reduction programs in elementary and middle schools is the second policy recommendation. “Many programs such as Farm-to-School are already taking place, but they lack rigorous evaluation,” Palmer says. “After the initial pilot program and required evaluation, the most effective programs could be adopted statewide.”

Older children with their own spending money are the primary target of the third policy recommendation, although it would reach children of all ages. This policy would establish a threshold excise tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages, to be levied on distributors. Beverages could contain 1 gram of sugar per ounce of liquid; any sugar over that amount would be taxed a penny per gram of sugar.

“Our hope is that the threshold would make this tax politically more feasible than straight sugar taxes, because some amount of sugar would not be taxed,” Palmer says. “States would generate a large amount of revenue from this tax that could be used to fund the other two policies and to balance budgets.”

“We recommend states adopt all three policies, but we recognize that each is effective on its own,” Palmer adds. “All policies produce positive net benefits for society and would reduce childhood obesity over the next 20 years.”

“I am very proud of the hard work and preparation the students put into this exercise,” says their faculty adviser, David Weimer, an expert on cost-benefit analysis and Edwin E. Witte Professor of Political Economy at UW–Madison. “Their success says much about their ability as well as the talent the La Follette School attracts.”

“We are very lucky to have such a wonderful advisor in Dr. Weimer and are incredibly grateful to have the school support throughout the competition process,” Eadie says. “I think I speak for the team when I say that it was a great experience!”