California Sees a “Patchwork of Progress” on Childhood Obesity
Between 2005 and 2010, the state of California saw a 1.1 percent statewide drop in the percentage of children in grades 5, 7 and 9 who were overweight or obese – a modest decline after 30 years of generally rising childhood obesity rates. California is one of just a handful of states whose obesity rates have dropped.
The decline was documented by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), which described a “Patchwork of Progress” in the state. Although the state saw an overall decline in the five-year period, more than half of the state’s counties continued to see increases in obesity rates among youth. Thirty-eight percent of California fifth, seventh and ninth graders were still overweight or obese in 2010.
While the uneven progress is sobering, there is a lot of encouraging news coming out of many California communities. Among the 26 counties that saw decreases in overweight and obesity rates among children, seven saw rates drop at least 5 percent. One city in Southern California, Baldwin Park, saw rates fall by 8.8 percent between 2006 and 2009.
Ten years ago, Baldwin Park officials began asking residents what was missing in their community, says Rosa Soto, Southern California Director for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. Answers from the community included skate parks; salad bars, fruits and other healthier choices in schools and after-school programs; and grocery stores.
“We had six times as many fast-food restaurants and liquor stores as grocery stores,” Soto says. Community activists and local officials worked with businesses, schools, and residents to make the changes residents asked for, including putting healthier snacks in corner stores, creating more bike lanes, and increasing physical activity in schools.
Soto’s advice to other communities: “Start with something that will bring people together, because once they start it will likely continue.”
At the state level, moving the needle on the childhood obesity epidemic is especially crucial for California, which spends more on obesity-related health problems than any other state. The total public and private expenditures related to obesity in California, including lost productivity, run more than $21 billion per year, note the authors of the “Patchwork of Progress” report.
But the state recognizes these costs, and has committed to doing what it can to reduce them.
In 2004, the state banned the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in K-8 schools, and later restricted the sale of such beverages in high schools. In 2007, the state instituted a policy that limited calories, fat, saturated fat, and sugar in snacks sold in all schools. “It makes no sense for schools to be teaching students about being healthy, and turning around and selling soda and junk food on campus,” observes Harold Goldstein, CCPHA executive director and co-author of the report. In 2008, California also became the first state to require the labeling of calories on chain restaurant menus.
“What we’ve done in California seems to be working,” says Goldstein, but “still, there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”