Childhood Obesity Rates Drop Slightly In Some Cities: What Are They Doing Right?

Finally, a little good news concerning the nation's rising obesity rates: rates among children in some cities and states are starting to drop.

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Finally, a little good news concerning the nation’s rising obesity rates: rates among children in some cities and states are starting to drop.

Obesity experts and state health officials are excited by a September report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that recorded the trend, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

The analysis shows that some U.S. states and cities are showing declines in childhood obesity rates, although disparities among socioeconomic and racial groups continue. Specifically, the survey cites New York City, Philadelphia, and cities in Mississippi and California as leading the downward trend in childhood obesity rates.

The declines are slight, but notable, especially after years of climbing at the national level. New York City reported a 5.5% decline in the number of obese children  between 2007 and 2011, Philadelphia reported a 4.7% drop, and Los Angeles a 3% drop. Statewide, Mississippi, which is among the heaviest states in the U.S. with a childhood obesity rate hovering around 41%, reported a 13.3% drop.

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What’s behind the success? Jim Marks, senior vice president and director of the RWJF Health Group says there is a pattern among the cities with the most significant declines. Most are implementing multiple, comprehensive programs that target both schools and communities by upping the availability of healthier foods and encouraging more physical activity and educational opportunities. “From this aggregation, it is clear now that any community that makes these kind of changes over a few years will see their children get healthier,” says Marks. “We have now enough places that have done this that we can confidently say to communities that if they make these changes, they will see these improvements and more we hope over time.”

That includes tapping into as many different venues where people eat and buy food as possible. For instance, since 1992 Philadelphia has worked with The Food Trust to help corner stores fill their shelves with fresher foods, bring better food to under-served markets, connect schools and farms and require acceptance of food stamps at farmer’s markets.

In some cases, stricter—albeit unpopular—measures may be needed. New York City requires fast food restaurants to list their calories, was the first to ban trans fats from restaurant fare, and requires daycare centers to offer physical activity, adhere to nutrition standards and limit TV time for toddlers. This year, Bloomberg also passed a controversial ban on big soda, which prohibits the sale of drinks larger than 16 oz. at restaurants, sports arenas and movie theaters. To promote healthier eating, the city launched the Green Cart and Healthy Bucks initiatives to make buying local produce easier for low income families. And the city is also turning its attention to physical activity, calling upon architects and city planners to make the Big Apple more exercise friendly.

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Both New York City and Philadelphia made an early commitment to fight the childhood obesity in public schools starting in the mid 2000s, says Marks, by setting stricter nutritional guidelines and offering healthier food options.

Similarly, on the state level, the RWJF report credits Mississippi and California’s success to adopting nutritional standards in schools by offering healthier food, drink and snack choices as well as increasing physical activity requirements. California implemented a law requiring support for walking and biking to be included in state transportation plans as well as nutrition information at fast food chains. Mississippi launched programs in 2008 such as the Color Me Healthy Program, which trains childcare providers in creating healthy environments that encourage exercise. The state’s Fruits and Veggies–More Matters program reached out to 15,000 in 2009 through school events, health fairness and worksite wellness programs.

Despite the changes taking place in certain communities, disparities still exist. Mississippi has reported an admirable drop in childhood obesity rates, but only among white students, and New York’s decreases in obesity rates are smaller among high risk groups such as African-American and Hispanic children, who live in neighborhoods where they don’t have the same opportunities to exercise and eat fresh foods. Only Philadelphia has reported progress in closing disparity gaps with significant drops in rates among African-American males and Hispanic females.

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“We think of these findings as fragile and exciting,” says Marks. “After 30 years of steady increases, it’s exciting. But these are early changes, these are not secure changes. They could reverse easily and so it is by no means a notion that the epidemic is on the run. Rather, it is the notion that it is able to be defeated if society makes the changes that we know are necessary.”

In addition to adopting programs to address childhood obesity early on, these cities and states also started measuring the height and weight of their kids early, which helps to make their declines are more visible. More details on the national trends in childhood obesity may become available in 2015, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) releases the results of its Childhood Obesity Demonstration Project. The goal of the project is to determine the most effective health care and community strategies to support healthy eating and active living among kids to help combat childhood obesity. In September 2015, the agency will release its findings and recommend the most successful methods to prevent obesity among under served kids in the U.S.

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In the meantime, the success achieved by the cities cited in the current report should serve as a framework for other cities and communities hoping to achieve similar victories in keeping childhood obesity rates down. “[These declines are] not happening everywhere yet. Some communities may have started too late, or are not doing enough, or have not been able to measure their kids,” says Marks. “We are hoping we hear from more communities, and that these communities continue to make changes and continue to succeed. Frankly, now we need industry to step up.”