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While "Patchwork for Progress" Report Offers Promise, Strengthening Efforts on Creating Healthy Communities is Key

November 15, 2011 | Genoveva Islas-Hooker, MPH | Dialogue4Health

Obesity rates among California's children and youth have been rising at alarming rates over the years, however a new study, A Patchwork of Progress: Changes in Overweight and Obesity Among California 5th, 7th, and 9th Graders, 2005-2010, indicates that California is making progress.

In some counties, and across the state on average, childhood obesity rates have declined. However, the study also demonstrates that some counties in the San Joaquin Valley continue to fair poorly. In some counties in California's San Joaquin Valley, we are seeing over 43% of students in the 5th, 7th and 9th grade who are overweight or obese. This is largely due to the pervasive poverty in this region, density of unhealthy foods, and the lack of access to green spaces.

Reducing childhood obesity in the San Joaquin Valley requires that a continued emphasis be placed on upstream prevention strategies aimed at changing environments and policies so that communities have access to healthy food and beverages and that they have opportunities to engage in physical activity.

In California's San Joaquin Valley, the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPP) is working to ensure that there are healthier communities by fostering change in environments and policies. Through CCROPP's work, schools and communities are partnering together to help improve access to healthy food and beverages by establishing school farm stands and produce stands, healthy school menu and vending options, universal free breakfast, removing sugary drinks like flavored milk and providing access to fresh, free drinking water in schools. Partners are also working together to help improve physical activity opportunities by establishing safe routes to school programs and dedicating school space during the evenings and on the weekends for community use and active exercise.

The culture of healthier environments that we're seeing in some of our target communities and that we're seeing in other parts of the state shows that these changes work. In order for us to make drastic changes in California's San Joaquin Valley, it's critical that these efforts be taken to a much larger scale. We know that children spend most of their day at schools or daycare, so much of the emphasis for change needs to take place within the school setting or child care settings; however, it is equally important that parents and entire communities be involved in this movement.

An emphasis should be on these key areas:

  • Supporting best practice ideas, such as a farm-to-school, school garden, school salad bar program to ensure improved nutrition for students
  • Improving school nutrition and wellness policies that replace junk food and unhealthy beverages at school events, in vending machines, snack bars and cafeterias with healthy choices
  • Encouraging shared use of school and community resources to increase the amount of open space available for physical activity
  • Incorporating higher physical education and physical activity standards in school wellness policies
  • Cleaning up neglected parks and making them safer
  • Establishing safe routes to school programs to create safer environments and promote walking to school

It is absolutely essential that these efforts be part of a larger national focus to support healthy communities through federal policy change in the Farm Bill to increase the supply and access to healthy foods in underserved communities, strengthen the infrastructure needed to better link farmers and consumers, aid in the delivery of healthy foods; protect and strengthen federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, and to protect the investments in prevention and public health provided through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including funding for Community Transformation Grants.

In the Valley, we are still faced with a generation of children predicted to be the first ever to die at a younger age than their parents due to poor health caused by obesity and poor lifestyle habits. It is our responsibility to help stem the tide of obesity and we can do this through larger scale efforts that focus on changing environments and policies. This requires an urgent response from everyone: parents, policy makers, funders, and many others.

Children in the Valley deserve the same improvements in health as other parts of the state.


About the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program

The Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (CCROPP) helps to create healthier communities in the San Joaquin Valley that support healthy eating and active living. CCROPP focuses on two major initiatives: Increasing Access to Healthy Foods and Beverages and Improving Opportunities for Physical Activity. For more information, please call 559.228.2140 or visit www.ccropp.org.

Genoveva Islas-Hooker is Regional Program Coordinator of PHI's Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program