Wednesday, December 21, 2011

NYC public schoolchildren are less obese than 5 years ago, but is everyone benefitting equally?

After years of relentless increase, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week that obesity rates for public schoolchildren in NYC have decreased over the past five years. The 5.5 percent decrease in obesity rates was the biggest decline in any large city in the country, where most rates are stagnant or rising. As NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley put it, “What’s impressive is that it’s dropping at all.”  

This announcement came after intensive city, state, and nationwide efforts to put childhood obesity on the public’s radar as a serious and urgent health issue. In NYC, the Department of Health, the public school system, and many community organizations have been implementing programs to reduce childhood obesity by increasing access to healthy food, teaching nutrition to schoolchildren, and increasing opportunities for physical activity.  While this decline is certainly a step in the right direction, over 20% of public schoolchildren in NYC are still considered obese and further drops in obesity rates will depend on the continuation and expansion of these efforts.

In addition, though drops were felt across all racial and ethnic groups and economic levels, it was not an equitable distribution. The results, published in a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show that declines in obesity were sharply higher among middle-class children than low-income children. In terms of race and ethnicity, the greatest decreases were observed among white children and Asian/Pacific Islanders. Though black and Hispanic children also showed some decrease, it was to a much lesser degree. As this data indicates, there is a real need for concentrated and targeted efforts to reduce childhood obesity and improve health among low-income communities of color.

Bronx Health REACH has been working within schools and communities to reduce childhood obesity through classroom-based nutrition education, the creation of school wellness councils, and partnerships with local businesses to increase the availability and affordability of healthy food. (To read more about Bronx Health REACH’s efforts in this area, click here.) The communities in which we work are largely low-income and have majority black and Hispanic populations, which as the recent report shows, have the highest prevalence of childhood obesity in New York City. These are the areas that require the greatest intervention and increased resources. This recent report proves that lowering childhood obesity rates over a relatively short timeframe is possible, now we need to make sure that efforts to do so are equitable.

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