Kearney, Nebraska: Signs of Progress Toward Reversing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

City reports 13.4 percent decline in obesity for grades K-5

    • July 8, 2013

Childhood obesity rates in Kearney, Neb., are on the decline—and making this community healthier has been a "village effort" according to Carol S. Renner, PhD, associate superintendant of Kearney Public Schools. A few of Kearney's notable initiatives include:

  • establishing a new downtown farmers’ market;
  • promoting and expanding community gardens;
  • improving local parks by creating a new playground, new splash parks and revitalized swimming pools, as well as a hike and bike trail that connects much of the city;
  • participating in Activate Buffalo County, which leads campaigns to increase physical activity and healthy eating;
  • partnering with Good Samaritan Hospital and Sentinel Health to support student fitness activities, as well as a local greenhousethat provides healthy “potted gardens” for students’ homes; and
  • initiating school-based efforts to help students eat healthier and move more.

Carol Renner: "Yes, you can make a difference!"

Carol Renner, associate superintendent of Kearney Public Schools, talks about how teachers, other school staff, and parents have helped make healthy changes in Kearney schools. Renner was speaking at an event hosted in Washington, D.C., on July 9, by Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association.

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A Culture of Health in Kearney Schools

In 2005, nearly four in 10 students in the Kearney, Neb., school district were overweight or obese, the result of years of steady increases in student weight.

District administrators knew something had to change. “We got serious about getting our schools to be healthier,” said associate superintendent Renner. The district applied for, and received, a three-year, $900,000 Carol M. White Physical Education Program Grant, which was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to help improve schools’ physical education programs. The district set a goal to cut its obesity rate by two percent during every year of the grant.

Kate Heelan, PhD, a professor of exercise science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney who had been working to bring healthy changes to the district, was enlisted to lead an evaluation of the grant. She had been collecting obesity data in the district for years, and found the obesity-reduction goal ambitious: “Obesity prevalence was continually going up everywhere, including here in Kearney. Aiming for a significant reduction seemed like it might be unrealistic, but it was a good challenge.”

So how did they do? In 2011, Heelan and her team shared a short report with district administrators and the school board—a report which ended up attracting national attention to this small Midwestern city. Obesity rates in grades K-5 had declined by 13.4 percent.

During this time, many of Kearney’s efforts to promote healthy weight for children were based in schools. The Kearney Public Schools district adopted a wellness policy in 2006, hired Wellness Coordinator Cari Franzen to lead its implementation in 2007, and then joined the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program. Heelan and Franzen also brought the case for a healthier school environment directly to teachers, who embraced strategies to make their classrooms healthier, such as replacing snack-based rewards with extra recess time.

Kearney students are now getting more physical activity during the school day in a number of ways:

  • Physical education (PE) classes are scheduled every other day, and PE teachers use the SPARK™ curriculum, which uses evidence-based strategies to help kids get active.
  • In the classroom, teachers conduct short physical activity breaks, such as “Take 10!” and “JAMmin’ Minute.”
  • Recess now includes more opportunities for structured group physical activity games, is no longer withheld as a punishment, and is held indoors during winter months so kids can still be active.
  • Many schools have instituted before- and after-school walking and running clubs.
  • In high schools, gyms are open during lunch for basketball, volleyball, or other activities.
  • The district bought play equipment including jump ropes, balls, rubber fitness station mats, scooter boards, and Wii gaming stations to enhance physical activity during indoor and outdoor recess.

According to Franzen, who is now an elementary physical education teacher for the district, “Teachers love that kids are ready to learn when they get to class. They’ve burned off that extra energy, which allows them to be more focused and engaged in the classroom.”

The Kearney Public Schools Food Department also has changed the way students eat. Elementary schools now have fruit and vegetable salad bars, including nutrient-dense items, such as spinach. All meals include more whole grains, all milk is low-fat or fat-free, and classroom snacks are healthier. To promote healthier eating in students’ homes, the district has also started hosting special nights where parents can learn healthy recipes and cooking techniques.

Of all of the changes that have taken place here, associate superintendent Renner says that the biggest and most important one has occurred in the minds of the school community: “Teachers, administrators, and children alike are always thinking about how their choices will impact the health of Kearney students.”


Kearney high school students participating in gym class.

Kearney by the Numbers

Population: 30,787¹

Racial/ethnic makeup: 92.3% White, 1.8% Asian, 1.0% African American, 0.3% Native American¹

Percentage eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 23% in Kearney County²

County Health Ranking: Kearney County ranked 23 of 79 Nebraska counties³

1. 2010 Census
2. National Center for Education Statistics
3. County Health Rankings

Obesity in Nebraska

Adult obesity rate: 28.6%

State rank: 22

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