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Study: Idaho obesity rate for kids among nation's lowest

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | October 13, 2021 1:00 AM

Idaho’s obesity rate for youth ages 10 to 17 is 13.3%, according to a report released Tuesday from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“The state of childhood obesity in America is an urgent call to action for leaders at all levels and across all sectors,” said Jamie Bussell, RWJF senior program officer.

The Gem State’s obesity rate for 10-17 is actually better than most. It is the 13th lowest in the nation and well under the national obesity rate of 16.2%.

That’s not a surprise to Ed Ducar, director of nutrition services for the Coeur d’Alene School District, which follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutrition Standards for School Meals and makes sure the roughly 3,000 meals it serves each day offer whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low sugar foods.

And for health-conscience parents, the district provides a website for a nutrient breakdown — calories, sodium, protein, carbs and fats — on each menu item.

A key to getting buy-in from kids is giving them choices on what they want, which goes a long way toward them actually eating their meal.

“That is our ultimate goal,” Ducar said.

For instance, Tuesday’s menu offered a choice of homemade chili and cinnamon roll or cheese and crackers with yogurt. Fruits and veggies are always included.

The district works with Eat Smart Idaho, a UI Extension program that provides nutrition and physical activity education for limited resource Idahoans.

It also is providing free meals for the 2021-2022 school year for every student.

That ensures more students are eating well, Ducar said.

“That is a good thing,” he said.

The foundation’s report, “From Crisis to Opportunity: Reforming Our Nation’s Policies to Help All Children Grow Up Healthy," shows the national childhood obesity rate has held steady for the last five years.

Some recent data support a surge in obesity rates during the COVID-19 pandemic particularly among younger children, according to the foundation.

Brussell said obesity is “a symptom of deep-rooted challenges that have only been made worse by the pandemic and are a warning sign that our nation’s policies are failing our kids. We must make real, systemic change to set kids on a path to better health.”

The Foundation makes several key policy recommendations, including:

  • Make universal school meals permanent and provide resources to ensure every child has access to a consistent source of healthy meals.
  • Extend eligibility for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, to postpartum mothers through the first two years after the birth of a baby and to children through age 6.
  • Extend and expand other programs that are pulling families out of poverty and reducing food insecurity, such as the expanded Child Tax Credit.
  • The federal government, and state governments which have not done so, must close the Medicaid coverage gap.
  • The federal government should develop a consistent approach to collecting timely data on obesity rates.

Physical activity is important, too, for having healthy kids, and there’s a lot offered in North Idaho.

The Kroc Center, on any given day, has many youngsters in the pool area or gym and many programs directed their way. Other fitness centers offer programs for children.

The Coeur d’Alene School District offers physical education classes at all grade levels, recess for elementary students, a cross-country program for elementary schools, athletics in middle and high schools, as well as other extracurricular activities/student clubs that entail physical activity.

The Panhandle Health District also offers many programs that impact healthy nutrition and lifestyles for children and families.

Its PLAY program, Parents Leading Active Youth, is a 12-week program consisting of two classes per week, one nutrition class led by a registered dietitian nutritionist and one physical activity class led by a physical activity educator.

It offers Medical Nutrition Therapy for those who have been referred by pediatricians.

"MNT is an evidence-based medical approach to treating certain chronic conditions through the use of an individually-tailored nutrition plan, wrote Katherine Hoyer, PHD spokeswoman.

Its diabetes programs offer prevention and management and teaches people how to eat healthy, be active, monitor blood sugar levels, take medication and problem solve.

Sandra G. Hassink, medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight, said the COVID pandemic has worsened risk factors for childhood obesity.

She cited economic stressors, food insecurity, less consistent access to healthy meals at school, combined with increased sedentary time, reduced physical activity, and social isolation as factors that have made it harder for families to stay healthy.

She said the consequences of obesity — breathing problems, high blood pressure and diabetes — increase the risks of serious COVID-19 disease.

“As we look out now and beyond the pandemic, we must create environments that support children and families in sustaining healthy lifestyles,” she said.