It's become cliché to blame video games for childhood obesity in America. So perhaps it's a little ironic that a new national competition is offering $40,000 in prizes to innovators who cook up engaging games and tools that promote healthy living.
Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, Apps for Healthy Kids calls for software developers and game designers to utilize USDA's recently released MyPyramid database of 1,000 foods and design applications to help kids and parents eat better and be more active. The submission deadline is June 30.
In the past year, various innovation contests -- such as Apps for Democracy and NYC BigApps -- have sprouted across the country, allowing citizens to build apps that solve city problems. Some of them award cash prizes. The Apps for Healthy Kids competition is the latest component in the First Lady's Let's Move! campaign aimed to end childhood obesity within a generation.
"Our kids didn't do this to themselves," the First Lady said during a speech to the National Parent Teacher Association on Wednesday, March 10. "They don't decide what they're served at meals. They don't go shopping. They don't decide whether there's time for recess and gym. We make those decisions. We set those priorities. We're the ones in charge. But that's the good news -- because if we helped create this problem, then we can solve this problem."
There are a number of existing applications for iPhone and Blackberry users that count calories, scan bar codes and feature exercise logs. The Apps for Healthy Kids competition is divided into two categories: "games" that promote healthy living and "tools" that incorporate nutritional data to assist with meal planning and grocery shopping. The diverse panel of judges includes Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc., and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra.
Michelle Obama has been touring the country, meeting with food service directors, nutritionists, parents and kids. She has also been asking mayors and governors to do their part to build healthier cities and states.
"Clearly states have tremendous health-care expenses that they are incurring in addition to life expectancy and other issues," said Brandon Kessler, CEO of ChallengePost, the competition's host who's fresh off the success of the NYC BigApps Challenge. "State and local governments should have a vested interest in improving childhood nutrition and eliminating childhood obesity. It's not just a federal issue."
In Mississippi, which leads the nation in overweight kids and adults, the State Department of Health is pushing efforts to curb obesity, such as creating community gardens with churches and farmers markets in areas where they don't exist. The department's current plans with schools include establishing a 60-40 ratio of junk food to healthy variety in vending machines, said Dr. Victor Sutton, director for the Office of Preventive Health for the State Department of Health. He also said the state is creating joint-use agreements among the schools to open access to facilities.
"There may not be a YMCA or a Gold's Gym around," he said, "but there's always a school that provides a safe place for families to use a track or an indoor gym."
In essence, sharing resources is what Apps for Healthy Kids is all about. And Kessler urges people to visit the Web site, show support and spread the word about the competition to attract as many developers as possible to create a healthy variety of apps.