Health advocates heaved a sign of relief this month over a new report showing that the obesity epidemic may be leveling off. In the past five years, the percentage of overweight and obese kids in California dropped by one percent. Not a screaming success, but a lot better than the gains seen since the 80s ... or even in the past decade. The rate of overweight kids in California increased by six percent between 2001 to 2004 alone.
Some individual counties saw drops in obesity levels while others, like Del Norte County, saw massive increases. The report, aptly named "A Patchwork of Progress," reflects on these discrepancies. The Bay Area itself is somewhat of a patchwork, too. In nearly all Bay counties, childhood obesity rates are on the rise. The single exception was San Mateo county, which saw 5.6 percent decrease.
So why are San Mateo County kids getting thinner while the rest of the Bay is getting fatter?
It may have to do with a program the county started started seven years ago, when it aggressively started tackling the issues of childhood obesity and health disparities. The result was the "Get Healthy San Mateo County" Task Force, which has moved forward on a number of fronts.
For starters, the county launched the "Walking School Bus" program where one or more volunteers organize a group of kids to walk to school together.
“The idea is that you get the same level of camaraderie and peer support," says San Mateo County Health Systems Chief Jean Fraser. "It raises the awareness that walking is a viable option for kids to get school.”
Fraser notes that San Mateo County is lucky in that most of the children in the county attend a neighborhood school. “Neighborhood schools are really key for making it even possible for kids to walk or bike to school.”
Fraser says the county also started a youth development program called “Healthy Corner Store Makeovers." Kids approach neighborhood corner stores and work with the shop owners to bring in more fruits and vegetables and to redesign stores so they're more prominently and attractively displayed.
“The food marketing people are very smart. The first things you see up by the cash registers are the things we tend to buy. Though we didn’t get rid of the junk food, we've moved it moved back.”
She says the county focuses on neighborhoods with the highest health disparities levels, such as East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks, an unincorporated part of Redwood City. In North Fair Oaks, kids organized a "healthy makeover" of La Carniceria Guadalupana (Guadalupe Meat Market), which they documented in this video.
As for East Palo Alto, the task force determined that the area was a food desert. The community was filled with fast food chains and corner stores, but not a single grocery store.
“Even if you wanted to get fresh fruits and vegetables in East Palo Alto, it was just physically very hard. And the community has lower car ownership than the rest of the county, so it was sort of a double whammy.”
She says the study raised awareness, and now East Palo Alto has at least one grocery store. Still, the county has a four to one ratio of fast-food outlets compared to grocery stores.
But by no means is Fraser declaring victory. She says while they're pleased with the progress, San Mateo County still has a lot more work to do to significantly reduce childhood obesity rates.
“Nobody needs to celebrate where we are. We still have 34 percent of our children that are overweight or obese. We have so much work to do.”