Childhood obesity is an epidemic in America, especially in America’s communities of color. Over the past 40 years, obesity rates have soared more than four-fold among children ages 6 to 11. Today, 31.8 percent of youth between 2 and 19 years of age-or 23 million kids-are obese or significantly overweight. If nothing is done, this may be the first generation of people who will live shorter lives than their parents.

The NAACP views childhood obesity as a civil rights issue. One would think that a child’s risk for obesity would be determined by genetic and biological factors. In fact, major disparities exist based on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. A full 38 percent of Latino children and 34.9 percent of African-American children are overweight or obese, compared with 30.7 percent of white children. Simply put, children of color are more likely to live in poor, unsafe communities where there are few opportunities for physical activity, higher exposures to harmful environmental factors and limited access to healthy food options.

The toll that this problem is taking on these children and their families-not to mention the nation as a whole-is immense. Psychologically, obese children and adolescents are targets of early and systematic social discrimination, leading to low self-esteem that, in turn, can hinder academic and social growth and functioning.

Physically, it has been proven that obese young people have an 80 percent chance of growing up to be obese adults, putting them at higher risk for associated health problems like diabetes. Financially, these health costs drain families, communities and the nation-people in the United States spend about 9 percent of their total medical costs on obesity-related illnesses, which adds up to as much as $14 billion a year.

On Sept. 27, 2011, the NAACP will unveil its “Childhood Obesity Advocacy Manual,” which is designed to provide NAACP units and other grassroots organizations with the tools they need to address the childhood obesity epidemic. The manual establishes an advocacy agenda designed to change policies and programs at the local, state and federal levels, and to build an effective, community-wide plan to promote healthy behavior in Black families.

We must ensure that neighborhoods have adequate parks and recreation centers where children can play year-round. We must encourage local grocers and corner stores to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, and assist them in reaching that goal. We must increase access to health care for all Americans in order to address obesity from a young age and keep future obesity-related illnesses under control. With active units in every state throughout the United States, we believe we are well-equipped to engage community and state leaders in this fight to save this and the next generation.

Children growing up in poor communities already lack so many opportunities that others take for granted. We cannot burden them any more by taking away their choice to live a healthy life. For the sake of our children and our nation’s health and well-being, we must address the childhood obesity epidemic plaguing our nation today.

Shavon Arline is the national director of health programs for the NAACP.