Declines in childhood obesity rates in Philadelphia point to success in healthy foods initiatives

September 11, 2012 at 11:24 am

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the obesity rates for children in the Philadelphia school districts declined between the 2006-2007 and 2009-2010 school years. These results were published last week in a study that measured the height and weight of the approximately 200,000 kids, kindergarten-grade 12,  served by the district. 80 percent of these children are minorities, and 50 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

The CDC found that the obesity rate overall decreased by 4.8 percent between the ’06-’07 and ’09-’10 school years. Severe obesity was down from 8.5 percent to 7.9 percent. The declines were greater among some groups.  Obesity among elementary school students (grades K-5) went down 6 percent. The rates for African American boys and Hispanic girls went down by 7.6 percent and 7.4 percent respectively.

Philadelphia has been among the most aggressive cities to tackle the issues of health, nutrition education, and healthy food access. It was one of the first school districts to remove sodas and sugary drinks from vending machines, enact snack standards, offer free breakfast, discontinue the use of fryers, and switch to 1% milk. The city banned trans fats in restaurants, mandated nutrition information in chain restaurants, and created incentives for expanding access to healthy foods in corner stores.

Though these results do not provide hard evidence that the initiatives are working, there is a clear link.

In the absence of evidence that genetic changes suddenly added layers of fat beginning in the 1970s, the “environment” – price, advertising, purchasing habits, and myriad other factors – is clearly the culprit in the obesity epidemic, said Gary D. Foster, director of Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education. “So if we blame the environment for the last 30 years,” said Foster, who was not involved with the new study, “we’ve got to credit the environment” for the improvement.

Philadelphia provides a hopeful example of what can be done nation-wide. Obesity rates are on the rise, as are the associated health problems. Educating children and influencing their relationship with food can help ensure that they grow into healthy adults.

Again, if you’re interested in exploring this issue in North Carolina, please register for the healthy foods forum, NC Gown, which will be on October 9 in Greensboro. Nutrition education and the impact on children will be one of our topics of discussion.

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