The obesity rate among students in poor King County school districts dropped significantly after those schools adopted programs promoting exercise and healthier eating, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The findings released Thursday showed a 17 percent decline between 2010 and 2012 in the rate of obesity among eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in the seven participating school districts — most in South King County.
It was the first significant decline in the rate since the state began tracking it 10 years ago, and substantially narrows the gap between wealthier and poorer districts.
The districts, along with dozens of other participating organizations involved in community health and fitness, shared about $13 million in federal stimulus funds as part of a two-year national obesity-prevention initiative called Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW).
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The schools shared $2.8 million of that money to implement a range of programs — from buying physical-education equipment to bringing more healthful choices to student stores and school cafeterias.
State and county health officials say the results hold promise, both statewide and nationally, for improving community health overall. Investing in children’s health now, they say, could lead to healthful habits in adulthood and lower health-care costs in the future.
“As a physician, I understand how difficult it is to get people to make behavioral changes …” said Jim Krieger, chief of chronic disease at Public Health — Seattle & King County.
“What I’m excited about is that this demonstrates that if you make the places where people are during the course of their day — where they live, learn, work and play — less unhealthy, then you make it easier for them to do the right thing.”
The 41 grant recipients were asked to focus on goals such as creating safe, walkable and bikeable communities, reducing consumption of sugary beverages, and supporting farm-to-school programs, low-income immigrant urban farmers and small retailers seeking to provide healthful options.
The program intentionally targeted South King County, where rates of obesity, tobacco use and inactivity are higher and where health disparities compared with other parts of the county and state are greater.
One of the poorest regions of the state, middle- and high-school students in South King County are 1.6 times more likely to be at an unhealthy weight than students in other areas.
The student obesity rate was derived from the biennial monitoring of youth obesity through the Healthy Youth Survey that the state Department of Health began in 2004. As part of that survey, students report height and weight for a body mass index (BMI), which health officials then use to help determine the obesity rate. An obese child is one whose BMI is in the top 5 percent for kids of that age.
The biennial survey results showed little change in the obesity rate in any of the years between 2004 and 2010.
But in the survey year of 2012, two years after the CPPW initiative began, health officials recorded the first significant decline in the districts that had received funding — Auburn, Highline, Kent, Northshore, Renton, Seattle and Tukwila.
Students in other districts across the county and elsewhere in the state that didn’t receive the funding, meanwhile, saw no such drops in obesity rates, according to the state.
Districts used the money in various ways to promote healthful
options among staff and students.
Seattle Public Schools, for example, replaced outdated equipment and supplies in its physical-education program.
In Auburn, the county’s most obese community, Auburn High School teacher Lori Jacobs worked with a core team of students who are part of DECA, a national student organization that fosters entrepreneurship and leadership.
They launched a campaign that included signs in the cafeteria promoting the importance of breakfast and good eating habits. They visited all the district’s schools to talk about the initiative and brought in experts to talk about nutrition and fitness.
One effort in an elementary school promoted a Stop Pop movement, and the district began participating in the Commit 2B Fit campaign, in which 6,000 students and staff tracked and logged their monthly activities, with a point system awarding gold, silver and bronze.
DECA students stocked the student store they operate with healthful snacks, and one principal began riding his bicycle to work, swapped Coke for water and began eating alongside students in the cafeteria.
About 100 students are now involved in CrossFit training, and many participated in a 5K run, Jacobs said.
Jacobs said the efforts were successful because they were peer-to-peer and not the normal top-down approach of so many school programs, and many continue even now.
“There was so much that happened at the grass-roots level,” she said. “We stopped giving doughnuts when someone did something good. There’s so much that we do as a society where we use food as an incentive.”
Jacobs said that with the CPPW funds gone, she’s been writing smaller grants to continue some of the work the students started.
“Down here we have Auburn Way, which we call Fast Food Way — with fast-food restaurants up and down the street,” she said.
“We all know healthy foods are more expensive, but when you watch kids pick up an apple instead of a cookie, that’s a great thing.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.