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Childhood Obesity: The Epidemic
Part III - Grass Root Efforts

Nancy Stephan
Staff Writer

   Although childhood obesity showed signs of increasing since the early 1980s, recent data indicated the numbers continue to decline. 

   Many of the programs and monitoring devices implemented throughout the country helped reduce the onset of childhood obesity and further reduced the risks of diabetes, heart disease and other complications. 

   Governor Mike Huckabee’s leadership and personal example set the pace early on for the state of Arkansas in improving its obesity rate among young children and adolescents. For example, Arkansas became one of the first states to weigh students, determine their Body Mass Index and send results home to their parents. Many parents resented the schools reporting on the “fatness” of their child, but test results proved the procedure beneficial. 

   In addition to weighing students, Arkansas’ school officials limited students’ access to vending machines by offering healthier alternatives; replacing high sugar drinks with milk, water and low sugar juices and encouraging an increase in physical activity. 

   In accordance with state mandates, Monticello Elementary School limits the amount of high sugar and junk foods offered at school parties to nine times a year.  

   “We’re really trying to create changes in the children’s eating habits,” said Tish Thomas, MES principal. 

   Thomas recently worked to coordinate a health grant, which helped purchase DVDs for exercising in the classrooms.  

   “Our physical exercise schedule at MES increased from 40 to 60 minutes, and we offer an additional 90 minute activity during recess,” Thomas said. 

   Long-term studies around the state indicated healthy eating habits and increased physical activity improved not only the student’s BMI scores but regular scholastic testing scores as well. 

   Statistics show the plan works. The online Weight Loss and Food News Information reported that Arkansas, the 11th fattest state, turns out to have slimmer kids than California, the 31st fattest. While California’s youth continue to get fatter and fatter (up 6 percent in three years to 18 percent), Arkansas’ kids held steady at 21 percent this year (down from 38.1 percent in 2003). 

   Donna Francis, Drew County Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Science, works with area school children K-5 implementing the “Take 10” program. The program encourages teachers to take 10-minute breaks with the students several times a day performing knee-bends, sit-ups or tow-touches while reciting their numbers, spelling words or practicing phonics. 

   “Each teacher received a three-ring binder containing all sorts of activities to use with language arts, math science, social studies and general health lessons,” Francis said. 

   In the last two years, parent surveys conducted by Francis indicated many families made healthier eating choices by offering their children fruit, vegetables and water as alternatives to junk food and high sugar drinks. The surveys further showed parents became more involved in their children’s physical activities. 

   Registered dietician at the Monticello Health Department Jane Pelke works with local food service directors in the schools and recently obtained grants for funding and coordinating school health programs. 

   “Monticello was one out of 10 school systems in the state chosen to be involved in the program,” Pelke said. 

   In addition, she helped implement the “Healthy Kids Challenge” providing school dietitians a way of cooking light, endorsed the “Take 10” program and encouraged an increase in physical activity during the school hours. 

   “Because I come from a long family of health professionals, I’m compelled to see to it that the schools are able to provide services to the children, which offer a healthier lifestyle,” Pelke said. “Researchers claim kids that are overweight end up with the same quality of life as those tested for chronic diseases, cancer and other long-term illnesses.” 

   Pelke said society needs to educate or “do something” to halt the growth of obesity in our children. She stressed the importance of parental involvement as a large part of reducing the risks of childhood obesity. She suggested parents plan meals carefully before they do their shopping. 

   Governor Huckabee recognized parents, teachers and students for making the necessary changes for a “Healthier America,” but he said we still have a long way to go in fighting the battle. 

   “We’ve hit the turn around point, not the destination. That is a big difference, but before we can arrive at where we want to be, we have to stop where we are headed. Where we were headed was a catastrophe,” Huckabee said. 

   The fight against childhood obesity remains a challenge for all members of our society. Success lies not only in the hands of our government, states and schools but in supporting parents, who commit to making the necessary changes in the lifestyle and eating habits of this country’s youth and adolescents.

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ŠThe Voice 2006
01/13/2008 03:26:50 PM — http://www.uamont.edu/Organizations/TheVoice/4_12/obesity3.htm