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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New childhood obesity data shows progress, room for improvement in Spokane and nationwide

Sheryl Moe, assistant kitchen manager at Audubon Elementary School, delivers a scratch-made chocolate chip muffin to a student’s tray in this September 2016 photo. A new report shows childhood obesity rates have remained relatively stable in Washington state over the past two years. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Sheryl Moe, assistant kitchen manager at Audubon Elementary School, delivers a scratch-made chocolate chip muffin to a student’s tray in this September 2016 photo. A new report shows childhood obesity rates have remained relatively stable in Washington state over the past two years. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Amid national attention on childhood obesity rates, newly released data for Washington show that 7,100 youth ages 10-17 are obese. That puts the state’s rate for this age group at 11%, ranking Washington as the sixth lowest in the U.S.

Nationally, 4.8 million youth ages 10-17 are considered obese, according to newly released data from the 2017-18 National Survey of Children’s Health. That translates to a national rate of 15.3%. The information also includes analysis conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

Obesity can put young people at greater risk for several other diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. The new data, along with policy recommendations, are included in a new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Other indicators show that racial and ethnic disparities persist nationwide. “Black and Hispanic youth had obesity rates (22.2% and 19%, respectively), that were significantly higher than White youth, (11.8%), or Asian youth, (7.3%),” the report says.

Regionally, some Washington advocacy leaders credit work that began six to eight years ago that continues, both through early learning centers and WIC, which provides nutritional assistance to pregnant women, mothers and babies.

“I feel like there has been a lot of attention to childhood obesity and prevention work in this state,” said Vic Colman, director of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition of Washington, which has partnered with the state Department of Early Learning.

Part of the childhood early learning work is linked to new updates, effective Aug. 1, for licensing requirements that include healthier meals, physical activity and limited screen time.

“The work is challenging because health departments, local or state, don’t control many of the levers that we’ve been using to deal with this issue,” Colman said. “You have to work with other sectors – early learning, parks and rec, transportation, land use; that’s been the challenge.”

Separately, Colman said some Spokane early learning centers and the regional health district have taken early leads in implementing healthy approaches to reduce obesity.

Several years ago, St. Anne’s Children & Family Center in Spokane started having toddlers pick fruits and vegetables from a garden, learn about nutrition during family-style meal times and practice yoga in their classrooms.

Spokane Community College’s Bigfoot Child Care Center’s Head Start program regularly offers cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, apples and corn from its garden and from local farms.

“It takes time to really change the way an organization prioritizes and implements these childhood obesity prevention practices,” said Natalie Tauzin, a Spokane Regional Health District healthy eating policies and systems advocate.

“We’re holding these examples up, but they’re the culmination of some really intentional work,” she said.

The most current data from SRHD tracks childhood obesity prevention through the WIC program. For the period Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30 2018, 8.5% of children in Spokane ages 2 to 4 were considered in the highest body mass index (BMI) obesity risk.

The newly released U.S. childhood obesity data are included in “State of Childhood Obesity: Helping All Children Grow up Healthy,” a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The foundation also included some recommendations:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should rescind proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, that would cause millions of participants to lose their benefits. Nearly one-third of children 4 or younger are in SNAP in a given month.

USDA should maintain nutrition standards for school meals that were in effect prior to December 2018, and current nutrition standards for school snacks.

As USDA revises the food package for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, all recommendations should be scientifically based.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should have adequate resources to provide grants to all 50 states to implement multisector campaigns to address obesity.

State policymakers should allow cities and counties the flexibility to regulate, tax or otherwise enact strong legislation related to children’s health and healthy communities.

The report found some progress. The national obesity rate for youth ages 10-17 in 2017-18 of 15.3% compared with 16.1% in 2016. Washington state’s rate of 11% has remained roughly even the past two years.

The National Survey of Children’s Health collects health information for children from infants to 17 in the U.S. Parents or caregivers are asked to report their child’s height and weight, which is used to calculate BMI.

BMI-for-age percentiles are then used to identify children who are obese, such as BMI at or above the 95th percentile.

Colman, with the state coalition, said advocacy groups and health departments have more work to do. Some ongoing work includes healthy food incentives for SNAP, partnering with schools on nutrition and physical education, limiting sugary drinks, and funding for safe routes to schools.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is to make healthy choices easier, because it’s not a level playing field out there,” he said.

“We’ve got an industry – whether it’s food or beverage – that’s promoting and making available junk food and sugary drinks. We’re trying to level the playing field and make healthy choices easier, and we’re using policy change to do that.”

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