Rate down in Florida, up nationwide
Almost 16 percent of Florida youth are significantly overweight, the 22nd-highest rate in the nation, according to the third annual childhood obesity report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “From Crisis to Opportunity: Reforming Our Nation’s
Policies to Help All Children Grow Up Healthy.”
The latest state figure of 15.8 percent — from the 2019-2020 National Survey of Children’s Health, based on information from parents — is lower than the 16.2 percent national obesity rate and the 17.8 percent cited for Florida in the previous year’s report.
The national rate, which has remained stable for the last five years or so, translates to one in six youth being obese.
The foundation had no specific data on why some states were lower than the national rate and others were higher. But despite Florida’s reduced rate and the country’s stable rate, the numbers are concerning on multiple fronts, according to Jamie Bussel, senior program officer at the foundation.
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If children are not a healthy weight, based on their age and height, by kindergarten, they will likely remain obese as they grow up and into adulthood, she said.
Also, childhood obesity is a “canary in the coal mine because it is impacted by so many factors,” leading with structural racism, said Bussel, who leads the foundation’s efforts to prevent childhood obesity. The highest obesity rates are among youth of color, as well as youth from low-income families, many of which are minority households.
“Racist policies and discriminatory practices affect our food system, access to
health care, affordable housing and critical family supports like child care. Together the effects of these policies and practices often force families to make hard choices on how to spend limited resources,” she said.
The national obesity rate was 21.4 percent for non-Hispanic Black children and 21.4 percent for Hispanic children, compared to 12.1 percent for non-Hispanic white children, according to the report. Household income was also a factor: Obesity rates ranged from 23.1 percent among youth in low-income families to 8.6 percent among youth in the highest income group, according to the report.
Kimberly Allen is CEO of 904WARD, a Jacksonville nonprofit working to end racism.
“Structural racism absolutely has created and sustains disparate outcomes for communities of color,” she said. “The fact that negative outcomes seem to persist despite our best efforts to provide services and programs points to there being a larger force, such as structural racism, driving these outcomes. It is heartbreaking, though not surprising, that children of color take the hit to their health, particularly obesity.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also is likely worsening existing factors such as economic stressors and food insecurity and created others, including isolation, reduced activity and loss of school meals during quarantines, said Sandra Hassink, medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight.
Data collected from June 2020 until January 2021 showed no “significant” change in childhood obesity because of the pandemic, according to the report. But “emerging evidence” since then showed the pandemic “may be contributing to rising
childhood obesity rates,” according to the report.
Hassink said the pandemic’s impacts caused “already high obesity rates to increase … As we look out now and beyond the pandemic, we must create environments that support children and families in sustaining healthy lifestyles.”
Shawyntee Mayo, pediatric preventive cardiologist with Wolfson Children’s Hospital’s Terry Heart Institute, said she had seen evidence of pandemic-related weight gain in many of her patients. She cited extra time indoors, less exercise and sports activities, increased snacking and declining mental health as contributing factors.
Many parents suddenly forced into home schooling “didn’t recognize or have the tools to incorporate physical activity, which is typically a critical component of homeschooling,” she said, recommending youth be encouraged to resume physical activity.
Mental health problems also can lead to overeating or stress eating in families. They may need a professional such as a child or family psychologist to help, Mayo said.
Help is crucial. For children, being overweight can lead to diabetes, joint issues and psychological problems, among other things; in adulthood it can be associated with increased risk of heart disease and cancer and other ills, according to Mayo.
Statistics require ‘urgent call to action’
A multitude of societal and governmental policy changes are needed to rein in the childhood obesity rate, Bussel said.
“Childhood obesity is one of the most complex public health challenges we have ever faced,” she said. “There is no magic bullet.”
The foundation’s recommendations are to:
• Make universal school meals permanent. About 30 million students participate in the national school lunch program, 15 million in the school breakfast program and 5 percent of both meals are free or reduced price, according to the report.
• Extend eligibility for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women,
Infants and Children, or WIC, to postpartum mothers through the first two years after the birth of a baby and to children through age 6.
• Extend and expand programs that help families escape poverty and reduce
food insecurity. For instance, after the first month of expanded Child Tax Credit payments, the percentage of food-insecure families declined significantly.
• The federal government and state governments that have not extended Medicaid coverage, such as Florida, should do so. The result would be improved health outcomes and reduced racial and ethnic disparities.
• The federal government should collect timely childhood obesity data organized by race, ethnicity and income level so that preventative measures are based on evidence.
Also, the report noted “harmful food and beverage marketing” for products such as sugary drinks was targeting children online.
“The state of childhood obesity in America is an urgent call to action for leaders at all levels and across all sectors,” Bussel said. “Obesity is a symptom of deep-rooted challenges that have only been made worse by the pandemic and are a warning sign that our nation’s policies are failing our kids.
“We must make real, systemic change to set kids on a path to better health,” she said.
Founded in 1972, the foundation bills itself as the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health. The New Jersey-based foundation supports research and programs that focus on issues ranging from substance abuse to access to quality health care, according to its website.
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ROBERT WOOD JOHNSON 2019-20 CHILDHOOD OBESITY REPORT
To view the full report, go to stateofchildhoodobesity.org.