A new report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) found that the rate of obesity among young people ages 10 to 17 in Texas has held steady at 15.5 percent in the last several years, slightly above the nationwide rate of 15.3 percent.
The State of Childhood Obesity report analyzed information gathered as part of the 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Screeners identified in advance households with children and asked parents a battery of questions designed to identify children with special health care needs, including the child’s weight.
Of the 4.8 million young people ages 10 to 17 with obesity nationwide, 485,700 are from Texas, according to the report.
“These new data help us understand where we continue to see big disparities where black and Latinx [children]have more obesity than [their] white or Asian counterparts,” Jamie Bussel, senior program officer at the RWJF told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “Data is really knowledge and power, and sheds light on the realities of what’s happening in states and across the nation.”
In Texas, the obesity rate among Hispanic youth, was 16.7 percent compared to 9.8 percent of white youth, according to the RWJF report.
“With childhood obesity there is no silver bullet. Not only will reducing obesity rates take time, but also a combination of policy, enlightened leadership, data, and strong voices to continue to do the work,” Bussel said.
Kathleen Shields, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District‘s Assistant Director of Community Health, said that obesity rates among local children “tends to be a little higher than the state levels because of local demographics.”
“We have unique challenges to addressing obesity because there is still so much disparity in access to health care and education” related to healthy living, Shields said.
The RWJF report includes several policy recommendations that would help to address the “differences by race, ethnicity, and geography that did not happen by chance,” including increased access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, maintaining nutrition standards for school meals that were in effect prior to December 2018, and increasing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding for multi-sector campaigns to address high obesity rates.
The University of the Incarnate Word’s School of Osteopathic Medicine has been looking into the local demographics and how they contribute to obesity as part of their population health initiatives aimed at improving health outcomes for vulnerable populations. A recently completed report compiled by Dr. Anil Mangla, associate professor and director of public health and research, and medical student Ari Cowan, found that Bexar County’s childhood obesity rate was at 28.8 percent in 2016 – significantly higher than the 2016 state average of 15.7 percent.
The report was completed in August and will be published by the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians.
Using 2016 data collected by the Texas Education Agency, the researchers looked at the body mass index, socioeconomic status, and food consumption trends for youth in San Antonio ISD, North East ISD, and South Side ISD, to determine potential causes of obesity and demographic trends.
“Local statistics on childhood obesity are very difficult to come by because of many kinds of restrictions on collecting data on populations under age 18,” Mangla said. “That said, it’s important to get at the information behind the numbers so we can work to get people what they need in order to live healthier lives.”
The questions included in the UIW Osteopathic Medical School study included whether on an average school or work day the student spent more than four hours watching television or playing video games, whether they recently ate fruits or vegetables, and whether they have access to safe spaces to play outside around their home.
Asked if they ate any fruit the day before completing the questionnaire, 18 percent of youth ages 8 to 12 said “no,” and 27 percent of youth aged 13 to 18 said “no,” Mangla said, noting that when you look at where these kids live on a map, “it was very clear that those who aren’t consuming fresh produce are living in areas where food is less accessible.”
However, when it came to rates of youth obesity by school district, Mangla said rates are consistent among the districts.
For males ages 8 to 18 in North East ISD, 30 percent were overweight or obese, in San Antonio ISD, 30 percent were obese, and in South Side ISD, 29 percent were obese, Mangla said. And when looking at economic disadvantage as it relates to a person’s weight, 46 percent of kids considered obese in North East ISD were part of families who are economically disadvantaged, compared to 92 in San Antonio ISD, and 81 percent in South Side ISD.
“What we know is San Antonio’s obesity rates were higher than the national average, and the difference is very significant,” Mangla said. “And the data is really suggesting that this is not just a problem in one area of San Antonio, but it’s an issue in all areas.”
For the last several years in San Antonio, Shields said, there have been concerted efforts toward lowering rates of obesity being done through Metro Health’s Healthy Neighborhoods program, which employs community health care workers to educate 11 high-priority communities in East, West, and South San Antonio about healthy eating through hands-on cooking demonstrations and educational programs.
The UIW School of Osteopathic Medicine recently partnered with the Food Policy Council of San Antonio, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing unhealthy food systems, and District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, to create the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a pilot program aimed at increasing healthy food access in areas where it is difficult to obtain.
“Change is a process, not an event,” Bussel said. “It took us decades and decades to get to the point we are at in terms of the prevalence of obesity. It’s not going to be changed overnight. So many leaders, organizations, and communities have been working on this issue for a long time, and it is going to take us a long time to get to a better place.