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Arkansas: Child Obesity Worse Than We Thought

First State to Measure Kids 'Sends Alarm to State and Nation'
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WebMD Health News

Sept. 7, 2004 -- America's children have an even bigger obesity problem than we thought, Arkansas' school-by-school survey shows.

Last year, Arkansas became the first state to officially tackle child obesity. State law requires all schools to collect height and weight data from all kids in all grades.

Released today, the data show that 38% of public school students are either overweight or at risk of being overweight -- the two heaviest weight categories. This gentle language is used by pediatricians. Some of these children actually qualify as obese.

"Awareness of the problem is the first step," pediatrician Joe Thompson, MD, MPH, director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI), said in a news conference. "Parents in the state of Arkansas are now aware of their child's problem. No other state can say that."

The state has sent letters to every parent in the state, advising them of their children's weight status. It advises those in the heaviest weight categories to seek confirmation from a nurse or doctor.

"The letter included recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics on things such as offering children healthier snacks, allowing them fewer soft drinks, getting them more activity, and limiting their TV and computer time," Thompson tells WebMD. "And it also suggests clinical resources where parents might seek further assistance."

Scary Numbers

The Arkansas data paint a frightening picture. While the data are worse than current CDC estimates, they are by far the most complete set of child height and weight measurements yet collected in the U.S. Some lowlights:

  • A third of kids enter kindergarten already overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.
  • 42% of sixth-grade kids are in one of the two heaviest weight categories.
  • Hispanic boys and African-American girls were in the highest obesity risk groups. Nearly half of each group is overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.
  • In 40% of school districts, 40% of the kids are overweight/at risk of becoming overweight.
  • The problem affects all school districts: rich and poor, rural and urban.

School and Community Effort

Arkansas' unique 2003 state law has several provisions:

  • Soft drink and snack vending machines are now off-limits to elementary school kids.
  • The law creates a statewide Child Health Advisory Committee to develop nutrition and physical activity standards. It also creates similar committees in each school district. These local committees include school administrators, food service personnel, teacher organizations, parents, students, and professional groups.
  • Schools must report to parents the amount of money they get from food and beverage contracts.
  • Every year, schools must screen students for obesity and report the results to parents.

Despite the focus on schools, Thompson says the Arkansas action plan can't work without the active participation of communities. The plan calls for communities to make local changes -- such as keeping community centers open after school hours, or lighting local tracks and fields -- that encourage more physical activity in children and their families.

"We are now taking a second step, forming local advisory committees and providing information to them to allow them to change their local environment," he says. "The long-term goal is to halt the obesity epidemic so that Arkansas becomes one of the healthiest places in the nation to live."

Is it possible? For inspiration, Arkansans and others can look to the state's Gov. Mike Huckabee. Last June, Huckabee entered a special weight-control program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences last June. The governor lost some 100 pounds.

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