By Jennifer Owens and Debbie Kibbe
The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released its annual Kids Count Data Book. The report provides a yearly snapshot highlighting key indicators of child well-being.
Despite maintaining its overall rank of 38, Georgia took a step backward from the prior year on its health ranking and is now placed 40th in the nation for health indicators, including rates of children with low birth weight; access to health insurance; death rates among children and teens; and obesity.
Even more troubling is that the Kids Count data represents the situation before the pandemic hit. It does not consider the unique challenges posed by the pandemic, which we are likely to see when the 2020 data is released next year. These challenges include isolation of children and families, the economic impact of the pandemic on families’ ability to put healthy food on the table, and the overreliance on digital devices for learning and entertainment — leading to potentially higher levels of sedentary behavior in children and teenagers across the state.
Obesity affects more children and adults in the United States than any other chronic health condition. Given that fact, the new Kids Count data on obesity is cause for concern. Over the last several years, Georgia has largely held steady at a statewide obesity rate of roughly 30-31%, according to this year’s Kids Count report. But now, after the biggest public health crisis in a generation, treading water on this metric is simply not enough if we are to improve the health of children and teens and put the future generation of Georgians on a trajectory toward better health.
A myriad of efforts over the last decade have targeted the state’s high childhood obesity rate, including the Student Health and Physical Education (SHAPE) Act, various food access and nutrition security projects, as well as school, community and philanthropic programs aimed at getting Georgia’s kids moving and eating healthy.
HealthMPowers programming is one of many efforts across the state focused on program and system interventions to address obesity. The latest Kids Count data shows we need to do even more if we are going to shift the trajectory, especially in this moment as we re-engage millions of children who have spent over a year tied to devices for learning and entertainment, and in many cases have endured long periods of isolation. Data analyzed by the Georgia Health Policy Center pre-pandemic shows that nearly 36% of Georgia students fall into the “needs improvement and needs improvement high risk” category for excess weight or obesity.
If we are serious about addressing health disparities, which can often be traced back to the disproportionate impact of obesity on Black and brown communities, then short-term action is critical. Simulation data out of Harvard shows a wide gap in obesity trends between Black and brown children and white children, and that the gap increases into adulthood. This disparity not only affects individuals but limits future potential, drives up health care costs and creates a generational cycle of largely preventable chronic health conditions that stem from obesity.
Childhood is a crucial time for developing healthy attitudes and behavior patterns related to diet, physical activity and avoidance of unhealthy practices such as tobacco use. The choices made in youth are significant contributing factors when looking at both length and quality of life. Fortunately, we have a lot of opportunities and many invested partners in Georgia dedicated to tackling childhood obesity head on. Funds from the American Rescue Plan can be deployed by school districts, local governments and nonprofit organizations to encourage health-focused programming and initiatives. Cross-sector collaboration seeking can make transformative investments in scalable initiatives that can increase access to healthy foods and provide opportunities for physical activity.
In the short term, our state leaders can look for three quick “wins” by enacting policy changes that will make a difference: 1) requiring physical education in Georgia middle schools 2) protecting recess time for all Georgia elementary school students 3) maintaining the physical activity and nutrition standards in Georgia’s quality-rated system for early education.
Now may be the time to assess how social determinants shape our children’s ability to be healthy. Obesity does not happen in a vacuum. Economic security, access to housing, and opportunities for education all play important roles, and a systems-level approach is needed now more than ever. We have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to harness new resources, forge new and creative collaborations and support whole-child efforts that will empower healthy generations to drive Georgia’s bright future.
Jennifer Owens is president and CEO of HealthMPowers. Debbie Kibbe is a senior research associate at the Georgia Health Policy Center.