A study of the average weight of students in middle schools throughout California reveals that cities in Alameda and Contra Costa counties have a high number of children who fall into the category of overweight or obese, including nearly half of the kids in Oakland and Richmond.
“It’s a problem that is impacting so many of the kids in the whole country, even though our study focused on California,” said Susan Babey, a UCLA Health Center for Policy Research senior research scientist who was one of the co-authors of the study. “If it’s not reversed it can have serious health implications for [kids] down the line.”
Over the course of approximately one year, Babey and Harold Goldstein, the executive director of California Center for Public Policy Health Advocacy, compiled data from schools in 250 cities to assess the percentage of students who fall outside the healthy weight range. The results of the study were released last week.
The study included schools in both Northern and Southern California and revealed that overall, 38 percent of students are overweight or obese. The percentages range from levels as low as 11 percent in high-income areas such as Manhattan Beach to as much as 53 percent in lower-income areas like Huntington Park. (Both are cities in Los Angeles County.)
The study found that 42.3 percent of students in the city of Oakland and 51 percent of students in the city of Richmond are classified as overweight or obese.
Some of the other cities within Alameda County included in the study that reflected a high percentage of children considered overweight or obese are San Leandro at 42.7 percent, Hayward at 42.7 percent and Newark at 39.2 percent. Locations in Contra Costa County included San Pablo at 52.4 percent, Antioch at 42.3 percent and Hercules at 37 percent.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines overweight and obese as ranges of weight that are greater than what is considered healthy for a given height. For adults, the Body Mass Index—the body’s weight to height ratio—is used to determine the amount of body fat a person is carrying. For children and teens ages 2-19, calculations are based on the child’s age at the time of measurement, and his or her height and weight to determine if they fall within the acceptable range for a person in that age group.
In California, public schools are mandated by the state to administer the physical fitness test known as the FITNESSGRAM to students in grades 5, 7 and 9. The goal of the test is to help students to consider different forms of physical activity that could help them to develop healthy fitness habits, and it includes taking the students’ BMI measurements, which were used for the study. In order to maintain consistent results, only data from cities with populations of 20,000 or more and from schools reporting physical fitness results from at least 70 percent of the students were used, Babey said.
“In this particular study, we focused on presenting the data broken out by city, but there is a lot of background information to this problem that suggests that there has been a dramatic increase since the 1970s in the percentage of kids who are overweight or obese,” Babey said. “There is some recent evidence that in the past four years or so it may be starting to level off. It’s at least not getting worse anymore, but it’s still very high and that is still concerning.”
The study released in June is a follow-up to the group’s “A Patchwork of Progress Study” released last October. It used the same data to evaluate each county and compared the state’s and counties’ progress from 2005 and 2010. Babey said that the October study showed that while there appeared to be a slight statewide improvement in the obesity rate, some counties showed improvement, some had not changed and others had gotten worse depending on the area reviewed. Alameda County showed a 2.9 percent increase while Contra Costa County’s numbers increased by 3.5 percent since 2005.
Childhood obesity is definitely a cause for concern in Contra Costa County, and county officials have reviewed the data in the study presented by the study, said Glenn White, a health educator at the Contra Costa Public Health Department. The study’s figures are consistent with the data that the health department has used to assess the obesity rate within the county, White said.
She said that several years ago, the health department began working to decrease the obesity rate by offering services designed to educate families about healthy eating habits. “We have a program here called Nutrition Exercise and Wellness,” White said. “It’s a new kids’ program that deals with 6- to 12-year-olds and their families. It is a pediatric-based weight management program.” Physicians refer the families to six weeks of classes where they learn about cooking, reading packaging labels and planning menus that consist of healthy meals and snacks, said White.
Because they are funded through the Network for Healthy California, a program created to improve the health status of low-income families, White said that one of their main focuses has been nutrition education programs for adults, “But in our upcoming scope of work we will have a youth component so we will be working with youth and probably the schools as well.”
Among other efforts, Contra Costa and Alameda County are among the six Bay Area counties participating in the Rethink Your Drink Program, through which students are taught about the amount of sugar contained in various beverages and encouraged to drink more water.
The program is produced by the Bay Area Nutrition Physical Activity Collaborative, which works to encourage local governments to pass healthy food and beverage policies and is a part of a general education campaign funded by a grant from Kaiser Permanente, said Susan Karlins, the group’s coordinator. The program has been in existence for nine years.
In the past, when there was a special occasion adults would have alcohol and children would have a soft drink, but now soft drinks are available everywhere and people substitute them for water as a daily drink, Karlins said. “The reason we are concerned about this is that the extra calories from all the sugar contributes to overweight and obesity,” Karlins said. “It raises the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. So we are really worried about the community’s health. Parents do the best for their kids, but the kids are out of our houses a lot.”
Over the last eight years the California Center for Public Health Advocacy has periodically released data about childhood obesity. This is the first time the information has been presented city-by-city, giving concrete numbers in terms of the scope of the problem in each community, according to Amanda Bloom, director of special projects for the group. The information could be used to determine if there is a model for healthy food programs in areas that are doing well that can be used in locations that are not, Bloom said.
“We focus on childhood obesity because it’s a huge epidemic both in this state and across the country,” Bloom said. “The diseases and conditions that result from obesity—particularly for children if they are overweight or obese for a lifetime—are staggering. Some people have estimated that this may be the first generation of kids to live a shorter life than their parents.”
In California, it’s hard to find places where residents don’t have access to food, even in poor communities, Bloom said. But what lower income communities appear to face more often is the fact that it is harder to find high quality fresh food at affordable prices, Bloom said.
“Our perspective is that the communities in which we live play big role in the choices we all make both consciously and subconsciously,” Bloom said. “There are ways that we have designed our state and our community that are detrimental to people. Our interest is in clearing away all of those roadblocks to healthy living and making it so that the healthy choice is the easiest choice for people to make.”
While there are multiple campaigns underway to educate civic leaders and communities about healthy food and drink choices, the data contained in this latest report appears indicate there is more work to do, said Bloom.
“It’s a case where it is going to take a lot of individual action to chip away at the problem,” said Bloom. “It is not any one thing that we are going to have to change. We will have to change lots of little parts and big parts in order to effect change.”