California: Signs of Progress Toward Reversing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

State reports decline in rates of overweight and obesity for grades 5, 7, and 9

    • July 8, 2013

California has a reputation as a trendsetter—and these days, the state is in the vanguard on taking innovative actions to make healthy choices easier statewide. California has:

  • removed soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages from schools, beginning in 2004;
  • limited the calories, fat, saturated fat, and sugar in snacks sold in schools, beginning in 2007;
  • required calorie labels on menus and menu boards in chain restaurants since 2008; and
  • provided technical assistance to help California cities establish local measures to encourage healthy eating and physical activity.        

Genoveva Islas-Hooker: "The story of the Central Valley is very much the story of California."

Genoveva Islas-Hooker, regional director of the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention, discusses how California, and the Central Valley in particular, have taken on the childhood obesity epidemic. Islas-Hooker 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.

See more RWJF videos

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.”


A teacher leads students in outdoor physical activity at Cleminson Elementary School in El Monte, California.

"For us, it's about investing in people."

In Baldwin Park, Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities is helping increase community access to healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.

Research from Bridging the Gap

California High School Students Consuming Fewer Calories at School

Study examined students' dietary intake; found differences between California students and students in states with no nutrition standards for school snack foods.

Read more

Obesity Rates Drop Among Young Children

California is one of 18 states reporting a decline in obesity among preschool children from low-income families.

Learn more

California by the Numbers

Population: 37,253,956¹

Racial/ethnic makeup: 73.7% White, 38.2% Hispanic or Latino, 13.9% Asian, 6.6% African American¹

Percentage eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 52.1%²

1. 2010 Census
2. National Center for Education Statistics

Obesity in California

Adult obesity rate: 25.0%

State rank: 41

Learn more


percent decline in #childhoodobesity in Calif. from '05-'10. #SignsOfProgress

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