Anchorage, Alaska: Signs of Progress Toward Reversing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

City reports 3.0 percent decline in obesity for grades K, 1, 3, 5, and 7

    • July 8, 2013

Obesity-related illnesses cost Alaska $459 million every year. But over the past 10 years, both the state as whole and particularly the municipality of Anchorage have been making concerted efforts to help children and families lead healthier lives. Some of the key efforts have included:

  • releasing major city and state reports between 2003 and 2006 that put the issue of childhood obesity on the public agenda and provided a roadmap for action;
  • adopting a wellness policy during the 2005-06 school year that promotes healthy eating and physical activity in the Anchorage School District;
  • assessing student body mass indices (BMIs) to inform prevention efforts and track progress; and
  • maintaining an ongoing commitment to preventing obesity, including the launch last year of a statewide public education campaign.

The brief profile below provides an overview of efforts by the Anchorage School District, the municipality of Anchorage, and the state.

Signs of Progress - Anchorage

A young girl hiking on a mountain trail just outside of Anchorage, Alaska.

Alaska’s Leading City Helps Kids Get Healthier

During the 2003-04 school year, 16.8 percent of young students in the Anchorage metropolitan area were obese. After seven years of action by the municipality and the state, the obesity rate dropped to 16.3 percent in the 2010-11 school year. While this difference may not sound like much, it represents a 3 percent decline. And because the Anchorage area makes up roughly 40 percent of the state’s population, what happens there can serve as a model for the entire state.

These signs of progress reflect a commitment by the city and state that goes back at least a decade. In 2003, the state published a seminal report, The Burden of Overweight & Obesity in Alaska, which noted that the epidemic represented “an increasingly urgent health issue in Alaska.” The state followed up in 2005 with Alaska in Action, a statewide plan for addressing the epidemic. Anchorage then put out its own 10-year plan for preventing obesity and promoting health in 2006, which provided a roadmap for action in the city.

These reports put the issue squarely on the public agenda. And in Anchorage, the city’s school district has been a leader in creating a healthier environment for children. The 2005-06 school year started with a new district wellness policy that called for removing sodas from schools and set standards for calories, fat, sugar, and salt in snacks. Also that year, the district expanded its meals program to offer healthy free and reduced-price lunches in middle and high schools. In subsequent years, the district hired health experts to teach health classes at least once a week, increased PE from 60 to 90 minutes per week for all elementary school students, and hired a registered dietitian (RD) to oversee student nutrition services.

At the same time, the district also became actively involved in Healthy Futures, a local program that encourages Alaska’s youths to develop the habit of daily physical activity. Together with the school district, Healthy Futures has taken many steps to help children be more active—both during and outside of school. Healthy Futures offers an incentive-based activity challenge, sponsors free and low-cost community recreational events for families, and recruits local professional athletes as positive role models.

The district also began collecting height and weight measures as part of routine health screenings for some students as early as the 1998-99 school year. Having this information from the beginning meant that the district, city, and state would be able to track the impact of their efforts.

The city’s 10-year plan to reduce obesity also set a broader agenda that extended beyond schools, calling for healthier foods and more physical activity in child-care centers and the community. The plan called for real changes to the built environment, including recommendations for bike and pedestrian facilities; expanded public transportation; improved connectivity and expansion of Anchorage’s more than 120 miles of paved trails; and adoption of building design standards that encourage and support physical activity.

“Our goal is to make it easier for kids and families to make healthy choices, and that means changing our schools and our neighborhoods so affordable, nutritious foods are available and people have safe places to be active,” says Karol Fink, manager of the Obesity Prevention and Control Program in the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Fink noted that the leadership the city and state showed early on was instrumental in supporting the progress that’s been made.

The state recognizes the need to maintain momentum and remains committed to addressing the epidemic. Just last year it launched Play Every Day, a public education campaign to increase physical activity among children and families. Healthy Futures has been a key partner in expanding access to the program.

“Each one of us needs to do all we can to make sure kids can lead active, healthy lives,” said Cindy Norquest, program director at Healthy Futures. “This decline is exciting, but our work is not done. With the district facing flat funding from the state, budget cuts are imminent and our fear is that the additional PE time and the health specialist positions may be eliminated. But the evidence speaks for itself: investing in the health of our children has health, academic, and economic benefits. ”

Anchorage by the Numbers

Population: 291,826¹

Racial/ethnic makeup: 66.0% White, 8.1% Asian, 7.9% American Indian and Alaska Native, 7.6% Hispanic or Latino¹

Percentage eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 32% in Anchorage County²

County Health Ranking: Anchorage County ranked 9 of 23 Alaska counties³

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

Obesity in Alaska

Adult obesity rate: 25.7%

State rank: 36

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percent decline in #childhoodobesity in Anchorage, AK from 2003-04 to 2010-11. #SignsOfProgress