Baldwin County, groups go to bat for kids

One of every five children in Baldwin County is obese.

Faced with that stark statistic, health organizations, elected officials and schools in the Middle Georgia county have formed Live Healthy Baldwin, a coalition that is fighting the area’s childhood obesity problem.

The group’s projects include starting community and school gardens; making roads safer for bicyclists and pedestrians; building trails; and supporting farmer’s markets. Area schools in the fall will offer 60 minutes of physical activity for students.

“We’ve been making some headway,’’ says Jim Lidstone of Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, who’s director of Live Healthy Baldwin.

It’s too soon to collect hard data on the 3-year-old initiative, he told GHN on Wednesday. But he added that “anecdotally, individuals and families have made changes and seen tremendous results.’’

Lidstone was among the speakers at a Wednesday event at the Capitol called “United Against Childhood Obesity,” where government officials, business leaders and nonprofit leaders emphasized their commitment to fight the epidemic of child obesity in Georgia.

“Childhood obesity is the No. 1 [health] issue in our state,’’ said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health.

Georgia has the second-highest rate of child obesity in the nation, trailing only Mississippi. Several initiatives are under way to reduce this problem, including Gov. Nathan Deal’s SHAPE program, a public-private partnership launched last year.

In a statewide SHAPE assessment, only 16 percent of the state’s schoolchildren could pass all five standard fitness tests last year. Even more alarmingly, 20 percent of students could not pass any of them.

A goal of the various anti-obesity efforts is “to put all children on a path to good health,’’ said Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, who organized the event. Forty percent of Georgia kids are overweight or obese, she said.

Georgia’s obesity costs are estimated at $2.4 billion per year.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who launched the Healthy Kids Georgia campaign, said that “together, we can turn this tide.’’

Bobby Cagle (no relation), commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, noted the importance of nutrition and exercise. “There is no substitute for healthy foods,’’ he said. “Active children are healthy children.’’

Also addressing the Capitol gathering was Kathy Kuzava of the Georgia Food Industry Association, which represents food retailers, wholesalers and suppliers. She said 2 million Georgians, including 500,000 children, do not have access to fresh foods.

“Access is a problem that we as an industry pledge to address,’’ she said.

Thursday is the final day of the General Assembly session, and still pending in the Senate is legislation that would promote exercise for children. House Bill 382 would facilitate children’s use of playgrounds after school, clarifying issues of liability.