West Virginia: Signs of Progress Toward Reversing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

State reports 8.6 percent decline in obesity among fifth graders

    • July 8, 2013

More than a decade ago, leaders across the state of West Virginia recognized the serious health and economic consequences related to obesity and began developing a strategy to address the epidemic. The state:

  • began conducting body mass index (BMI) assessments in public schools in 1998 as part of the CARDIAC project. Since its inception, the project has expanded to all of the state’s 55 counties, and nearly 150,000 students have been screened.
  • passed the Healthy Lifestyles Act in 2005, which called for major changes to promote healthy eating and physical activity in public schools and led to the creation of the Office of Healthy Lifestyles within the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources.
  • implemented the West Virginia Standards for School Nutrition during the 2008–09 school year, which set specific requirements for meals, snacks, drinks, and wellness policies in public schools. 
  • established Change the Future West Virginia in 2010, a project aimed at reducing obesity in the Mid-Ohio Valley, a rural six-county region with a population of about 130,000. The project started with a two-year grant from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work program and expanded to a statewide initiative in 2012, with a five-year Community Transformation Grant. Both grants were funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   

Jamie Jeffrey: "Live by the 5-2-1-0 rule!”

Jamie Jeffrey, MD, medical director of the Children's Medical Center & Healthy Kids Pediatric Weight Management Program at Charleston Area Medical Center, discusses how West Virginia has taken on the childhood obesity epidemic. Jeffrey 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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State Leaders Take a Strong Stand for Healthier Schools

West Virginia is among the states with the highest rates of obesity among children and adults. Medical expenses related to obesity cost West Virginia an estimated $588 million year, which includes $187 million (11.4%) of the state’s Medicaid expenditures. State leaders have been working for more than decade to address the crisis, and recent data suggest they’re beginning to move the needle. Among the state’s fifth-graders, the obesity rate declined by 8.6 percent between the 2005–06 and 2011–12 school years.

Creating healthy schools has been an essential part of West Virginia’s strategy for reducing childhood obesity. The passage of the Healthy Lifestyles Act in 2005 was one of the first major advancements. The Act included five school-based initiatives, which required physical education, the availability of healthy beverages, and regular fitness, BMI, and health education assessments.

To further improve the nutrition environment in public schools, the state Board of Education implemented new standards for school nutrition during the 2008–09 school year. The standards were based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and required school meals to include fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, low-fat milk, and water. They also set limits on the amount of calories, fat, sugar, and sodium for all snacks and drinks sold in vending machines, à la carte lines, stores, and snack bars. West Virginia was the first state to implement these standards, which are among the strongest policies in the nation for school snack foods and drinks.

A series of evaluations led by the West Virginia University Health Research Center suggests that schools have made progress to implement the mandates of the Healthy Lifestyles Act and the West Virginia Standards for School Nutrition. Food service directors, superintendents, and school nurses generally support the changes made throughout the state’s schools and believe they’ll contribute to a healthier lifestyle for students. The reports also show that students are drinking soda and eating fast food less frequently—and drinking milk and eating the recommended number of fruits and vegetables more frequently.   

Yet schools across the state still face many challenges, especially when it comes to providing the required amount of physical education time and helping students engage in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. These challenges are primarily related to inadequate staffing and facilities, which are at least in part due to budget constraints.

“We’re encouraged by the changes we’ve made and the progress we’ve seen so far,” said Tom Bias of West Virginia University’s Health Research Center. “And there are more initiatives underway across our state—we’re serious about ensuring a healthy future for the next generation of West Virginians."

West Virginia’s Office of Healthy Schools and other members of the evaluation team recommend several strategies for continued progress in the state’s schools, including:  

  • exploring  new opportunities to help students be active, such as increasing recess time and encouraging active play during recess, offering more intramural sports, and integrating movement-based instruction during class time;  
  • strengthening  partnerships between schools and communities to help increase resources for efforts to promote healthy eating and physical activity among students and families; and
  • educating families about the reasoning behind the nutrition standards, the intent of implementing strong standards in public schools statewide, and the potential to positively impact student health.

Teachers and children tend to a garden at a child-care center in Charleston, West Virginia.

West Virginia by the Numbers

Population: 1,852,994¹

Racial/ethnic makeup: 94.0% White, 3.5% African American¹

Percentage eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 49.2%²

1. 2010 Census
2. National Center for Education Statistics

Obesity in West Virginia

Adult obesity rate: 33.8

State rank: 3

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