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Childhood Obesity Still Rising Nationally And Locally

A recent study shows that childhood obesity continues to increase across the country. With few exceptions, the rate of obesity among children is also on the rise at the state and local level.

The national study shows 35.1 percent of children in the U.S. were overweight in 2016. That’s a 4.7 percent increase compared to 2014. Overall, the statistics reflect continuation of a three decades rise in obesity among youth from age 2 to 19.

Locally, there’s reason for optimism if you consider the obesity rate among children in the 2-5 year age range.

“In Escambia, in actuality, the obesity rate has dropped about 11 percent over that period of time, or in the state of Florida has dropped about 18 percent in the 2-5 age range,” said Dr. John Lanza, director of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County. “That’s important, significant.”

Dr. Lanza believes the decline is due primarily to a federal food and nutrition initiative offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, is a special supplemental nutrition program for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, women who’ve just had a baby, and infants and children up to 5 years of age.

In fiscal 2018, the number of participants in the WIC program in the Florida has averaged nearly 441,000 per month, trailing only California and Texas. WIC clinics, located at county health departments, provide nutrition education, breastfeeding support, and referrals to immunizations and other health and community services.

WIC also provides clients with healthy foods such as milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, cereal, juice, whole grains, dried beans, peanut butter, fruits and vegetables. These foods contain important nutrients needed during times of growth and development.

“I think what’s going on with the WIC age is that now we’re able to provide those children with healthier foods than were available previously,” said Lanza, who also pointed out that WIC isn’t available for children older than 5.

Between 2006 and 2016, the rate of obesity among middle school age kids in Escambia went up about 19 percent.  That compares to a 10 percent increase statewide for sixth through ninth graders over that same ten-year period. And, it gets worse.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Dr/ John Lanza, Director of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, speaks to Sandra Averhart about childhood obesity.

“When you look at high schoolers in Escambia compared to the state of Florida for the seniors in ’06 -’16, it’s a very significant increase in Escambia County students; 36 percent in the rate of obesity in that group.”

The obesity rate was 10.6 percent in 2006, 16.8 percent in 2016.

Over the same period, the state had a 16 percent increase in obesity for the older teens.

“So, we’re not doing as well as the state, but the state is increasing too, so we have a lot of work to do,” Lanza said.

Santa Rosa County has some work to do as well when it comes to childhood obesity.

Michelle Hill, public health services manager with the Florida Department of Health in Santa Rosa, referenced the Community Health Needs Assessment in 2016. “At that time, in Santa Rosa, 68.8 percent of our adolescents were at a healthy weight and 28 percent were overweight or obese,” Hill said.

Previously, DOH-Santa Rosa school nurses screened first-graders at 15 elementary schools during the 2013-2014 school year. At that time 1,896 first graders were screened. 12.4 percent of them were overweight and 9.2 percent of them were obese.

In a data comparison two years later, the nurses screened third graders at those same schools during the 2015-16 school year and found that 15.75 percent were overweight and 12.7 percent were obese.

“It’s hard to make a correlation because of all the outside factors of children moving in and out of the county, obviously not serving 100 percent the same population,” said Hill. “But, we’re showing that we have a percentage in our county that is above the healthy weight range.”

The study, conducted by researchers at the Duke Clinical Research Institute, was published February in the journal Pediatrics.

The findings show that across all age groups, African-American and Hispanic children had higher rates of overweight and all levels of obesity.

Locally, the greater concern is for African-American children from low-income families.

“I think our African-American population is around 26 percent population, something like that,” Lanza said of the demographics in Escambia. “If you look at schools individually, you see those schools that have the higher rates of obesity are the ones in the more impoverished areas.”

Those impoverished areas frequently are classified as food deserts, where families tend to have limited access to affordable healthy food.

At the same time, children are consuming too much fattening junk food.

Those are two of the primary causes for childhood obesity.

Dr. Lanza says another big factor is the lack of physical activity, with today’s kids more sedentary than previous generations who were encouraged to go outside and play.

“Now, I think a lot because of technology, instead of running and jumping around outside, the kids are on the inside with their cell phones or their video games, which we didn’t have 50 years ago,” Lanza said. He also pointed to the wealth of streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, to keep kids glued to the TV and not moving.

The causes of childhood obesity are universal and local health officials have united to try to make a dent with the 5-2-1-0 Let’s Go! Northwest Florida program.

“We really want to make sure kids are eating five fruits and vegetables a day, having less than two hours of screen time, and making sure they have one hour of physical activity each day and zero sugary drinks,” said Hill.

As part of 5-2-1-0, both counties are in the midst of incorporating the “Let’s Wiggle” program for preschoolers developed at the University of West Florida.

Escambia and Santa Rosa are collaborating on a three-year Community Health Improvement Plan and they’re working to promote healthy eating and active living through the state’s Healthiest Weight Florida initiative.

Both local school districts have received the Florida Healthy School District Award, with Santa Rosa recently achieving the Gold award level for 2016-2018.

The City of Pensacola has been designated as a Healthiest Weight Community Champion for its recreation facilities and activities, including a monthly “slow ride” for bicyclists and the now annual Cyclovia Open Streets event, which for 2018 will take place on March 24.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.