Grim stats for childhood obesity in Merced County

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 18, 2013 

— More than four out of 10 children in Merced County are considered overweight or obese, according to recent statistics from the county’s public health department.

Childhood obesity has been on the rise for several years, but has begun leveling off, said Public Health Director Kathleen Grassi. She presented the statistics to the county Board of Supervisors during a meeting this week for childhood obesity awareness month.

An estimated 43 percent of children in the county are overweight or obese, according to a 2010 study. About 41 percent are considered overweight in Merced, 44 percent in Los Banos and 45 percent in Atwater.

Statewide, 38 percent of children are considered overweight or obese.

A body mass index of 30 or more could indicate a person is overweight; 35 or more could be obese. However, it depends the person’s height.

Grassi said the accessibility of sugary, high-calorie drinks to children is a contributing factor. Those drinks are the largest source of added sugar in childrens’ diets and provide empty calories, she said.

“We’ve ended up with a market of very available and very cheap soda, energy and sports drinks that are high in sugar,” Grassi said. “When it’s very available and accessible, it’s a drink of choice.”

Steve Gomes, county superintendent of schools, said he isn’t surprised by the statistics. Gomes said food choices along with inactivity in children play a part in the obesity trend.

“Kids don’t ride bicycles or play outside like they used to,” Gomes said. “There are a lot of social, economic and safety reasons. We have some neighborhoods in Merced where it’s not safe to be outside.”

The county is participating in the Rethink Your Drink Campaign, which aims to educate the public about how sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to childhood obesity.

One of the challenges in Merced County is that some school drinking fountains aren’t operational – so kids must bring water from home.

Gomes said his team visited 25 schools in the county this past month to examine their facilities. One school visited by Gomes did not have a functioning water fountain, but he said it would be fixed soon.

It was unclear how many other schools did not have functioning water fountains.

Gomes said the majority of schools in the county do not provide snack vending or soda machines. The ones that do prohibit students from using them prior to lunch.

Bill Dunlavy, Jr., director of food services for the Merced Union High School District, said school lunches have evolved over the years as the district has complied with regulations.

“We’ve changed our menu so they’re low fat and we’ve included whole grain items,” he said. “We also offer three fruits and vegetables daily.”

Dunlavy said the district was serving deep-fried foods such as french fries, corn chips and soda when he started in 1996.

Now, the schools cannot serve fried foods, must have smaller portion sizes and have implemented salad bars, he said.

The schools must meet the following calorie guidelines: about 800 calories for high school students, 700 for middle school and 600 calories for elementary school students.

District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said Tuesday that she would like to see more fresh food options available in the county’s unincorporated communities, as well as safe routes for children to walk to school.

“When I was a kid, we all walked and/or rode our bikes,” Kelsey said. “And that’s not the case today for a number of reasons.”

Without making these changes, Grassi said children run the risk of not living as long as their parents’ generation. An increase in health problems stemming from childhood obesity can impact health care costs for everyone.

“Because children are becoming obese at a much younger age, they are starting to exhibit adult diseases at a younger age,” she said. “If those diseases go uncontrolled, it can mean someone 25 or 30 years of age can have chronic health problems.”

Grassi said the county has many partners who are working with her department to provide resources to reduce childhood obesity.

“In Merced County, there are a lot of community partners along with the public health department that are working hard to reduce this trend,” Grassi said. “I just want to call out the community efforts to make a difference and create healthy places for our kids and families.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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