Child obesity dips; need for healthy food remains

Georgia has recorded a 5 percent drop in its childhood obesity figures, according to state officials, citing new federal statistics.

The decrease helped move Georgia’s ranking as having the second most obese child population in the nation, which came from 2007 data, to No. 17 in the new figures, from 2011, Public Health officials say.

Still, the new data, formally released Tuesday, also found Georgia third in the nation for prevalence of overweight children and 10th nationally when combining both factors.

Also Tuesday, a task force released a report identifying 12 ways Georgia can improve access to healthy foods in underserved communities across the state, which it calls a critical step in reducing obesity.

People who live in areas without a full-scale supermarket suffer from disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health problems, said the Georgia Supermarket Access Task Force, a public-private partnership.

“Two million Georgians — including half a million children — live in areas where it is difficult to access healthy food,’’ said Gaye Smith, co-chair of the task force.

The group includes members of more than 40 organizations ranging from health care groups and government agencies to private foundations and grocery chains.

Limited access to nutritious food is a problem in urban neighborhoods in cities such as Augusta and Atlanta, as well as some rural areas, the task force report said.

“There are counties in Georgia without a grocery store,” said Smith, who is executive director of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, which helps coordinate services for children and families. “We already are getting calls from rural counties who are excited about this focus.”

Recommendations in the report include governments aggressively marketing economic development programs and public incentives to the grocery industry for supermarket and other healthy food retail projects in underserved areas.

The state should provide grants and loans to support development of supermarkets and other healthy food outlets, the task force said. Other steps include fast-tracking land permits; reducing barriers to healthy food vendor participation in WIC; improving security at food outlets and facilitating transportation for customers; and continued support for access to locally grown food.

“The supermarket industry is passionate about supplying a full range of fresh, healthy products to support our most vulnerable citizens in providing balanced diets for their families,” said Kathy Kuzava, president of the Georgia Food Industry Association and a member of the task force, in a statement.

The report cites success stories in several states in improving access to fresh foods.

The task force wanted “to get this on people’s radar screens,” Smith told GHN. Mobile grocery stores and farmers’ markets can be part of the solution, she added.

Public Health officials, meanwhile, have hailed the new child obesity numbers as a sign of progress, but note that there is a long way to go before declaring victory.

“I’m encouraged at the numbers,” said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, in a statement. “We must stay the course in Georgia to improve the lives of our state’s young people.”

Fitzgerald oversees Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign against childhood obesity, Georgia SHAPE. Last week, she and state school Superintendent John Barge sent a letter urging Georgia school superintendents to consider adopting a daily 30-minute period of physical activity for elementary school students, to combat obesity.

Barge and Fitzgerald cited the weak performance by many students in the Georgia SHAPE program’s fitness assessment. Only 16 percent of Georgia students passed all five fitness tests, and 20 percent were unable to pass any of the FitnessGram tests.

SHAPE accelerated during the 2011-2012 school year with fitness tests of schoolchildren, and was formally launched last year, prior to the new data. But public health officials said there was already a lot of work going on to address obesity.

The Georgia Student Health and Physical Education Act was passed during the 2009 legislative session, and “served as an important call to action in Georgia, forever changing the landscape of knowledge,’’ said Ryan Deal, director of communications for Public Health.

Several programs were launched that year, including school physical education and school nutrition, bringing more locally grown fruits and vegetables to school cafeterias, and encouraging use of state parks for health and wellness, Deal said.

“The data shows us that some Georgia children fell out of the obese category and into the overweight category,’’ Deal said. “Clearly this is an improvement, but also an indicator of the work to be done.’’

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is used to help screen for obese and overweight children. Kids in the 85th to 94th percentile are considered overweight, and those 95th and above are seen as obese.