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How will the obesity epidemic end? With kids.

Part 6 of a six-part USA TODAY series examining America’s obesity epidemic.

Each of the children in Betty McNear's home day care has a paper cup with their name neatly written on it and a green bean or pepper plant sprouting inside.

The preschoolers help set the lunch table and clean up afterward, eating a "rainbow" of foods in between. They study their colors with tomatoes and blueberries and learn to share by preparing a meal to feed everyone.

McNear's approach at My Nana Too, a family child care center she owns and runs in Garfield Heights, Ohio, is more than an academic exercise. It's also a bulwark against obesity and the lifelong health risks it can bring.

Her "kids" grow up knowing what a balanced diet looks like, how much is an appropriate portion and why it's important to favor fruits and vegetables over ultra-processed fast food.

For four decades, Americans have essentially thrown up their hands in the face of this growing epidemic, bemoaning the problem and lack of solutions.

But slowly, responses have been cropping up around the country. Some are as small as a pepper plant in a paper cup. Others are as large as an overhaul of the school lunch program, which is finally combating obesity rather than contributing to it.

Will they be enough?

It's too soon to tell, experts say, but the path to addressing widespread obesity has to start in childhood when habits are established, lessons learned and capping weight gain remains realistic.

"If we can put our resources into prevention, it's going to go much further in the longer-term than waiting to treat someone," said Christina Economos, an expert in pediatric obesity and behavior change and interim dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science at Tufts University. "The only way is starting early."


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