Big problem for kids


Phillip Rutledge, left, and fellow playmates, chase after Dillon Giambrone, with the ball, during a game of two-hand touch football at Westside Park.

Erica Brough/ The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 10:29 a.m.

Our children are too fat, and apparently getting fatter.

When the School Board of Alachua County calculated the body mass index, or BMI, for youngsters in the public school system during the 2008-2009 school year, the results were disheartening.

When the collected data for the Gainesville area were used to map out overweight or obese children by the ZIP code they live in, the magnitude of the problem was apparent. In some sections of east Gainesville and Alachua County, 35 percent or more of the school-age children were either overweight or obese.

Why is that a problem? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and poor self-esteem. More importantly, they are more likely to become overweight adults who face lifelong health problems including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, several forms of cancer and osteoarthritis.

A new study released last week by the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that on a national scale, obesity rates for children have held fairly constant over the past decade.

About 10 percent of infants and toddlers and 18 percent of teens were classified as obese, according to assessments from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In one area - boys between the ages of 6 and 19 - the obesity numbers have continued to climb.

In Alachua County, the numbers are much worse.

Many factors contribute to making children fatter - sedentary lifestyles; ready availability of cheap, fattening foods; and fewer parks and walkable communities.

Dr. Thomas Robinson, professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, said he believes the key to reversing the obesity trend could lie in preventing children from becoming overweight in the first place. Grassroots movements in communities to get them active and teach them better nutrition can be effective, according to Robinson, who directs the Center for Healthy Weight at Stanford's children's hospital.

Earlier this month, County Commission Chair Cynthia Chestnut hosted a Healthy Communities Dialogue at the Alachua County Health Department. The groups who attended were varied, but the focus was the same: How can we respond to these frightening statistics and protect our children's health?

Chestnut emphasized that the knotty problem of child obesity cannot be untied without cooperation from city and county agencies, community groups, the schools and, at the most grassroots level, the parents themselves. Not every child has equal access to recreational programs, parks and even healthy food choices, so getting the parents motivated to help their children and themselves will be key.

Rajeeb Das of the Maternal Child Health and Education Data and Research Center at the University of Florida, mapped out the scope of the problem with data from the School Board and the U.S. Census Bureau.

On average in Alachua County, 31.2 percent, or nearly one out of every three school kids, is either overweight or obese, those data show.

One of the maps shows the locations of schools, grocery stores and parks in each ZIP code, to see if there is a correlation with obesity.

Das expects to find out that more kids are overweight in areas with fewer grocery stores and parks.

Taking Main Street as a dividing line, Das said, grocery stores on the west side outnumber those in the east by two to one.

Parks dot the map, but not all parks are created equal, he said. The experience of being in a park differs, so UF public health students will be grading them. Does the park have facilities to keep kids active, or is it just a plot of land that no one goes to?

Das says that as a maternal and child health data warehouse, the research center wants to be more involved in the community.

"We publish papers as academics, but who is going to read them? We want people to be informed (about the risks of obesity) with supporting evidence for whatever decisions they make," he said.

"We (Alachua County) are doing worse than the worst state, so you can see what the future holds for us if we continue the way things are going."

The title of "fattest state" goes to Mississippi, based on 2006 data. That's where 29.5 percent of the adult population tops the scales in the obesity category.

Kathryn Parker, a registered dietitian who works with employees of the city of Gainesville, co-hosted the Jan. 8 community dialogue.

As one prong of a ramped-up approach to tackling obesity, Parker said, "We are going to approach local restaurant owners and ask them to let us analyze their menus for calories, fat and sodium so the consumer will be more aware of healthier choices."

Many chains have that information available online, Parker said, but few actually have it on their menus.

The response so far, she said, has been encouraging.

"We want to show restaurant owners that this will actually increase sales," Parker said. "And it is the right thing to do."

As a community, Parker said, most people don't know how many calories they need. They have never had their metabolism - the number of calories they burn when they are active - measured.

Parker said it's a test that takes 10 minutes.

"Then you can make an educated guess as to how many calories you have available to 'spend' in a day. Want that piece of chocolate cake? Well, here's how many calories and here is how long you will have to spend in the gym to burn them off."

It is a dose of reality, the dietitian added.

Working as a loose coalition, representatives from all areas of the community will continue to meet to form an action plan to battle obesity and will be presenting some of their findings on Feb. 26.

Janine Plavac wants to see the Healthy Schools Program now in place at Gainesville High School adopted by more schools.

County Manager Randall Reid said he will assist in setting up a Web site with information for parents and coalition members.

"Somebody has got to proclaim that this is the issue of our age," Reid said.

The dialogue will continue on Feb. 26 and all are welcome to join.

The group, organized by Chestnut, will meet at the Alachua County Health Department at 10 a.m.

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