Community-based solutions to childhood obesity show signs of progress elsewhere; will Kentucky pick up on them?

By Molly Burchett
Kentucky Health News

For decades, researchers reported with alarm the increasing trend of overweight children in America, with one in three kids on the way to developing Type 2 diabetes. Across the country, action has been taken to address this problematic trend, and now some preliminary, scattered results indicate that obesity rates have plateaued or dropped in some areas. Is Kentucky part of this success, and if not, will it learn from it?

The first set of positive signs came last year, with falling child obesity rates in New York City and Philadelphia, reports Lydia DePillis of The Washington Post. And, a recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation brief shows similar progress in states with a large rural population as well:

  • Mississippi posted a decrease from 43.9 percent of kids being overweight and obese in 2005 to 40.9 percent in 2011, three years after passage of the Mississippi Healthy Students Act. 
  • In North Carolina, Vance and Granville counties saw significant declines after implementing healthy living programs based on the Centers for Disease Control’s community guide.
  • Kids in Kearney, Neb., in grades one through five saw a 13.5 percent decline in obesity rates between 2005 and 2011.
  • West Virginia fifth graders posted a 8.6 reduction in obesity rates over a six-year period.

Overall, progress was made through community-based solutions, including changes to make healthy foods available in
schools while eliminating fried foods and working to integrate physical activity into people’s daily lives while educating them about the importance of doing that, says the brief.

Kentucky, which suffers from one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country, could learn from these successful programs. The state ties Mississippi for the highest percentage of youth in grades 9 to 12 that are obese (18 percent) and has the third highest percentage of children ages 10 to 17 who are obese (21 percent), compared to 16.4 percent nationally, says a report by Kentucky’s Task Force on Childhood Obesity.

The Kentucky General Assembly has not enacted legislation regarding healthy eating and physical activity like many other states, notes a National Conference of State Legislatures report, but established a task force that made various recommendations to the legislature in September for strategies that address the problem of childhood obesity and that encourage better nutrition and increased physical activity among Kentucky children.

Some of the task force’s recommendations include: requiring schools to improve nutritional content of school food, including promoting the use of school gardens, adopting a statewide standard for physical activity initiatives and nutrition education in schools and encouraging physical activity through a coordinated school health program. To view that report, click here.

Kentucky has no requirements for physical activity in schools. About 65 percent of Kentucky’s youth did not attend physical-education classes in 2010, and 80 percent did not attend such classes five days per week, says a 2011 Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey.

However, the state does have several programs to promote physical activity or healthy eating. They includes the Farm to School program, which has been adopted by 1,243 schools and 174 school districts and is a collaborative effort between federal and state agencies to bring local agricultural products to schools and to educate students about local food production, says the report.

Using the success of other state programs and existing Kentucky programs as a guide, Kentuckians and “the members of the Task Force on Childhood Obesity are encouraged to continue their advocacy efforts to address Kentucky’s health crisis in ways that have the greatest likelihood of preventing and reversing chronic diseases associated with childhood obesity,” says the report.

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