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A heavy duty


Government and nonprofit initiatives try to counter childhood obesity.

Rachel Curtis March 14th, 2012

Waistlines in the U.S. have ballooned over the past 30 years, with one in three Americans today considered obese. As the nation struggles to tame the health crisis, some states are faring better than others.

Oklahoma isn’t one of them. Ranked seventh in obesity with a rate of 31.4 percent, Oklahoma dropped to 48th in overall health last year. In 2004, only five of Oklahoma’s 77 counties recorded obesity rates of 30 percent or more; four years later that number spiked to 66.

Adult obesity will take a crushing financial toll on our children, with related health care costs slated to reach $344 billion by 2018 and account for 21 percent of all U.S. health care spending. 

But perhaps even more troubling, kids are adopting their parents’ bad habits. A whopping 12.5 million American kids — 17 percent of those between 2 and 19 years old — are obese. Oklahoma isn’t far behind, with 16 percent of its 10-17-year-olds identified as obese.

Hard to be healthy
The Oklahoma Fit Kids Coalition is fighting back by raising awareness and advocating for public policies that promote health among the state’s youth. The coalition’s director, Amber England, noted that the lack of sidewalks, road shoulders, safe parks and fitness centers in many parts of the state leave thousands without public areas for recreation. 

“Living in Oklahoma can be frustrating for someone who wants to live a healthy lifestyle,” she said.

right Children eating lunch at Wilson Elementary

She should know. Five years ago, England was 100 pounds overweight. She lost it through diet and exercise, along with the help of a personal trainer, gym membership, health insurance and an ample salary — resources that aren’t available to many. The coalition’s goal is to make healthy lifestyles accessible to all Oklahomans.

Early successes include legislation that raised school physical education requirements, limited junk food and facilitated locally grown produce in school cafeterias. In the current legislative session, the coalition is championing a bill that would capitalize on a recreational space available in every neighborhood: schools.

The initiative, which would limit liability on schools that keep their doors open after-hours, captured the attention of Gov. Mary Fallin. In her State of the State address, she threw her support behind shared-use agreements: “Moms and dads and others from our local communities can join our children in accessing tracks, courts and exercise equipment.”

That measure, Senate Bill 1882, passed the Senate last week and has been sent to the House for consideration.

Hyper-local goes guerilla
One school blazing a trail for kids’ health is northwest Oklahoma City’s Wilson Elementary. With laughter yoga and food days with chefs, Wilson is well ahead of the curve. A full one-third of its students voluntarily participate in a running club every Friday.

Jeremy Aliason, chairman of Wilson’s Eat Wise OKC committee, said parents of runners are asked to supervise at least one session to reduce the burden on teachers. But there’s an added benefit: “We get parents walking with their kids,” said Aliason. “We get them engaging in healthy habits together.”

right Amber England

Eat Wise also has impacted the quality of school meals, and not only at Wilson. The group discovered that all food across the district came from the same supplier, a company called Chartwells. There was no way to change food one school at a time.

Through persistent negotiations with Chartwells’ local representative, Eat Wise OKC saw that the 80-plus public schools got fresh fruit at each meal, replaced white bread with whole grain, and eliminated Pop-Tarts from breakfasts. Eat Wise OKC’s next goal is to have schools cook meals on-site instead of reheating processed foods.

Making the mainstream
This year, Wilson and six other OKC public schools were invited to partner with the national Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools program. Focused on establishing a culture of health rather than meeting hard targets, acceptance into the program is largely based on the commitment of teachers and administrators. “We’re trying to create sustainable change in the school environment,” said Nicholas Hickman, regional lead for the alliance. “The only way that it’s going to be effective is to have that support from staff.”  

Wilson was an ideal candidate since the Eat Wise committee took responsibility for fulfilling the program’s seven focus areas, which range from health education to employee wellness.

Aliason said he thinks the new partnership will create opportunities for more parents to become involved.

“The alliance,” he said, “is like that friend who decided to get in shape and says, ‘Hey, why don’t you work out with me?’”

Photos by Mark Hancock

 
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