Task Force Using Data to Take Aim at Childhood Obesity

April 26, 2012 at 4:00 pm

By Lee G. Healy
Published: Monday, April 16, 2012 at 11:29 p.m. on GoUpstate.com
Last Modified: Monday, April 16, 2012 at 11:29 p.m.

Newly released data on local childhood obesity rates will serve as the jumping off point for a community-wide task force taking aim at the growing epidemic.

The Spartanburg County Childhood Obesity Task force has compiled data on around 84 percent of first-, third- and fifth-grade students in school districts 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7. Results showed that more than a third of students in each of the grades were categorized as either obese or overweight.

The task force, formed in 2008, is made up of representatives from several local organizations, including the University of South Carolina Upstate, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, the Mary Black Foundation, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, Partners for Active Living, Hub City Farmers’ Market and the Spartanburg County parks department, among others.

Kathleen Brady, a task force member and director of USC Upstate’s Metropolitan Studies Institute, said the results aren’t surprising and are in line with state and national trends, but having a grasp on local data will help task force members understand the scope of the problem and how to combat it.

“We want to raise community awareness of the problem,” Brady said. “A lot of people really don’t know how bad the obesity epidemic is locally. We hear it a lot in the national news, but some of the local physicians have identified pediatric obesity as the number one health problem here in Spartanburg.”

Report data showed that the likelihood of obesity in children increased with age. A higher percentage, 39.1 percent, of fifth-grade students were shown to be obese or overweight, compared to 33.4 percent of first-graders. In third grade, 38 percent of Spartanburg County students were categorized as obese or overweight.

A 2011 report from the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) reveals that an estimated 15.3 percent of children and adolescents in South Carolina are considered, not just overweight, but obese. According to the SCCOTF data, the percentage of local elementary school children classified as obese ranges from 16.7 in first grade to 21.3 in third grade.

Task force members worked with school districts to measure students’ body mass index (BMI) during the course of the 2011-12 school year. For consistency among districts, school staff members were provided with similar scales and trained to use specific protocols to measure height and weight.

Results were further broken down to analyze local childhood obesity by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and gender.

Generally, students from low socioeconomic households were more likely to be obese or overweight. Hispanic children were most likely to be overweight, while African-American children were more likely than white children to be obese or overweight. Males and females were almost equally likely to be obese or overweight.

Brady said the task force plans to use the data to accomplish its goal of reversing the childhood obesity epidemic in Spartanburg County by 2015.

“If we can do that as a community, we have really done something great,” Brady said.

Task force member Renee Romberger, vice president of community health policy and strategy for Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, called the study “one of the first critical steps” in improving obesity rates locally.

“We’ve got to be able to measure and monitor outcomes, and we’ve got to understand the significance of the problem,” Romberger said.

From a public health standpoint, Romberger said that Type 2 diabetes among children is one example of how obesity is affecting society. She said the disease can be debilitating among adults, and now, with obesity rates on the rise, numbers are rising among children.

“When you begin to tackle obesity, not at an adult level, but at a child’s level, hopefully you’re talking about prevention,” Romberger said. “This is about how we can prevent serious disease. How can we catch it early?”

The data collected will now be available to community partners, including local governments, communities, schools and families, as they take action against childhood obesity. Brady said schools, in particular, will be key players in prevention strategies. She pointed out that children spend the majority of their day in school, and implementing habits of healthy eating and physical activity early on will ultimately benefit both the child and the community later on.

Terry Pruitt, deputy superintendent with Spartanburg District 7, said that having data specific to Spartanburg area students, broken out by grade level, provides the information needed to effectively plan and implement strategies addressing childhood health and wellness needs.

“Having data on our students allow the schools and the district to target where we need to focus in terms of continuing our efforts to promote wellness and good nutritional habits with our students.”

Good For You, Spartanburg Obesity Press Release
Good for You, Spartanburg 2012 BMI Report