Big fat problem

Politicians aren’t doing enough to fight childhood obesity, study says

NEGATIVE IMAGE <br>Students from Chico High School descend on the downtown during lunchtime. An advocacy group says legislation is needed to keep kids off junk food.

Students from Chico High School descend on the downtown during lunchtime. An advocacy group says legislation is needed to keep kids off junk food.

Photo By Tom Angel

Fat chance:
The CCPHA’s study defines “overweight” as being at the 90th percentile or above as determined by a Body Mass Index (BMI) assessment, the same standard as the California Physical Fitness Test that is administered in public schools. The federal benchmark for being overweight is the 95th percentile.

California’s schoolchildren are getting fatter and legislators aren’t getting off their asses to do anything about it, according to a study released this week by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA).

Between 2001 and 2004, the incidence of children in the fifth, seventh and ninth grades being overweight grew by 6.2 percent statewide. The districts of local Assembly members Rick Keene, R—Chico, and Doug LaMalfa, R—Redding, showed a greater increase: 16.1 percent in Keene’s District 2 and 8.9 percent in LaMalfa’s District 3.

“We were quite frankly shocked by the findings,” said Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of Davis-based CCPHA, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group that released a similar study in 2002. “We really thought that given the amount of media attention that the overweight issue has gotten the numbers would flatten out.”

He said the CCPHA sorted the data by Assembly district largely to tie the problem to individuals who can do something about it by limiting kids’ access to junk foods.

Keene called the report “illuminating,” but said the issue is not one that can be solved with legislation. “It forestalls the real discussion we have to have.”

“What happens in schools is reflective of what happens at home,” Keene said, mentioning poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles. “The reality of it is if the parents don’t have this as a priority at home then [laws] are not going to make a difference.”

The CCPHA believes the answer lies in several areas: getting sodas and junk food out of schools, eliminating on-campus advertising of such products, getting markets to move candy away from the checkout lines, maintaining quality physical education programs in schools, creating more healthful school lunches and making roadways more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

“Everywhere our kids turn the deck is stacked,” Goldstein said. “All of their choices are made in the context of what’s going on in their communities.”

Keene and LaMalfa, as well as 4th District Sen. Sam Aanestad, have a record of voting against bills designed to help combat the problem.

In 2004, all three voted against SB 1087, which sought to extend the Safe Routes to Schools program constructing pedestrian-friendly roadways.

In 2003, they voted “no” on SB 677, which kicked sodas off of elementary and junior high school campuses.

Next week, SB 965, banning sodas on high school campuses, faces a final vote on the Assembly floor, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to sign it into law, along with SB 12, which would apply rigorous nutrition standards to school lunches.

Keene said he’s not sure how he’ll vote on SB 965 and SB 12.

The package of bills, Goldstein said, “would revolutionize the school environment.”

Softening the CCPHA study’s blow a bit is the fact that of the some 24,000 students in both Districts 3 and 2, the percentage of overweight children was 22.8 and 26.2, respectively. It was 19.6 and 24.1 in 2001. The statewide percentage is 28.1; it was 26.5 in 2001.

But Goldstein wasn’t soothed. “Even though the numbers are lower than the state average, the [percentage] increase is much higher. I think that’s what this study is about: the percentage change.

“If you follow that curve, it’s getting worse and worse and worse,” said Goldstein, and it goes beyond parental and personal responsibility. “The way to solve this crisis is to stop undermining parents’ best efforts to help their children.

“Even in the district that’s doing the best, almost 1 in 5 kids is overweight. This is a crisis in every community in California.”

Keene, who said he makes sure his four children limit TV and video games and do something active at least half an hour each day, said.

“We’ve gotten used to, as a culture, having more and more and more,” said Keene, who was recently disturbed to see McDonald’s selling a 1-pound burger. “So much of it, frankly, is portion control.”