School Obesity Rate Dips in New York From Healthy-Habit Programs

The obesity rate in grade school- aged children in New York dropped 5.5 percent between 2006 and 2010 as the city started programs to boost physical activity and encourage healthier eating habits.

The percentage of obese kids in kindergarten through eighth grade dipped to 20.7 percent in the 2010-2011 school year, from a 21.9 percentage rate in 2006-2007, according to a study done by researchers at the city’s health and education departments.

The study, in 947,765 students, found the biggest effect among white children, though progress was seen in all groups. City officials attributed the drop to programs that eliminated deep-fried food and sugary sodas in cafeterias, limited how often junk food can be sold for fund raisers and added low-fat milk and salad bars to school menus.

“The tide of the obesity epidemic is beginning to ebb,” said Thomas Farley, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, one of the agencies involved in the research. “We see this as validation that our public health efforts to address the obesity epidemic are beginning to work.”

The improving results follow decades of rising obesity rates in New York and across the nation, Farley said in a telephone interview. Nationally, about 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 years are obese, or 12.5 million children, according to the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the report in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

While the study didn’t prove a cause, Farley said programs put in place under of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has to help. The city also has helps teachers integrate more physical activity into the school day, he said. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

Notable Changes

Parents of children said some of the changes were noticeable.

“Over the last two years there has been an absolute increase in healthy talk and asking kids to bring books instead of candy for birthday celebrations,” said Alexa Aviles, a Brooklyn, New York resident whose six-year old daughter goes to P.S. 172 in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. “There has definitely been a push to do healthier snacks, less candy.”

Bake sales have pretty much been eliminated, she said. Yet the school lunch food leaves a lot to be desired, Aviles said in a telephone interview.

“It is still over-processed, frozen food that is heated up,” she said. Some of the vegetables are unrecognizable to her daughter, so she packs her kid a lunch each day.

Salad Bar Access

Ellie Krieger hosts the show Healthy Appetite on the Cooking Channel, and has a nine year old daughter at P.S. 75 in Manhattan. She said school lunches are far healthier than they used to be. Her daughter has access to a salad bar.

“The changes in school food are tremendous,” she said in a phone interview.

Marion Nestle, a professor of food science and public health at New York University, said the declining child obesity rate, if confirmed in longer term research, would represent the first truly positive development in years.

“There numbers are very impressive,” she said by telephone. “There just hasn’t been good news about childhood obesity at all.”

New York City’s health department has been “astoundingly aggressive” in its attempts to fix the problem, Nestle said. If the numbers keep going in the right direction, “this is going to set an example for cities everywhere,” she said.

Outside Schools

Outside schools, the city has started a program to give additional permits for street vendors who agree to sell fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods, according to Farley. It has also closed off city blocks in some places to give kids a place to play.

“Obesity happens because they live in an environment where it is too easy to eat too many calories,” Farley said.

The study included data from the education department gained from measurements of body weight, muscular strength and other physical parameters that were taken from children starting in 2005 under a program that sends home a fitness report card.

The decrease in obesity was largest among white children and kids of Asian descent, and smaller among black and Hispanic kids, the study found.

“This is a turning point in the epidemic,” Farley said. “We are not by any means declaring victory.”

Separately, New York today is establishing new rules to ensure healthier food options in vending machines in city buildings. The rules will limit the amount of calories and fat allowed in foods in such vending machines. It is also putting in place an obesity task force among various city agencies to find new strategies to reduce obesity, according to a statement.

To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Langreth in New York at rlangreth@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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