Good News on Obesity in Arkansas

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Could Arkansas — land of rich barbecue, fried chicken and a famously overindulgent former President — turn out to be a rare bright spot in America's battle against child obesity? That was the proud claim made in a new report released on Wednesday by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and Governor Mike Huckabee, who is himself renown for losing 110 lbs. while in office.

Three years ago the state legislature approved an unusual program calling for every public school student in the state to be evaluated for obesity using a standard height-weight calculation known as body mass index, or BMI. At the time, figures from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) not only showed that the incidence of child obesity had doubled in the U.S. since 1980, they revealed that Arkansas had one of the highest rates in the nation: 20.9% of the state's youngsters were overweight while another 17% fell into the borderline "at risk" category. Nationally the figures were 17% and 13%, respectively. Originally envisioned as a new kind of grade on the child's report card, Arkansas's program was revised to provide the information in a more discreet and sensitive way — through confidential letters to parents that included recommendations on what to do if the child was overweight or at risk. Arkansas' Act 1220 also called for healthier foods in school cafeterias and efforts to increase physical activity at school.

Three years later Huckabee and state Surgeon General Joseph Thompson announced that child obesity, while still a big fat problem, no longer appears to be on the rise in Arkansas. Reams of data collected from 371,082 students in some 1,100 schools showed that the number of students in the overweight category was holding steady or dropping slightly from 20.9% in the 2003-04 school year to 20.4% last school year. "This is not the destination, this is a turning point," said Huckabee, who praised Arkansas parents for having "overwhelmingly responded positively" to the feedback from schools.

Unfortunately Arkansas record cannot yet be compared to trends in the rest of the nation in a definitive way. New national figures on child obesity rates, noted Dr. Thompson, aren't due out until 2007. If they show a continued rise, compared to what appears to be a screeching halt in Arkansas, the rest of the nation might want to take heed.