A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Mike Denham: Finding ways to address childhood obesity biggest public health challenge in U.S. today

To get a better understanding of just how prevalent obesity has become in America, consider that no state had more than 20 percent of its adult population fall in that category in 1996. Today, no state has less.

Kentucky has seen its rate for adults double during that timeframe, from about 16 percent to more than 32 percent, putting us 12th highest among the 50 states. Unfortunately, the state rankings are worse for our children, with high schoolers leading the nation and those not yet school age ranked sixth.

Recently, the General Assembly’s Office of Education Accountability (OEA) took a closer look at one avenue designed to give us a chance to improve these numbers: Recess and physical education programs within our schools.

That study found that nearly every public elementary school still offers recess, and that two-thirds provide at least 20 minutes a day, which is the minimum time recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Only five percent of the schools provide the daily 30 minutes of recess that the CDC prefers, however.

It’s an admittedly tough balance for teachers and administrators, who are trying to make sure their students also receive adequate time in the classroom. It’s a challenge as well outside of school, since the CDC says children should spend at least an hour a day engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise.

As it is, more than a third of Kentucky’s young and adolescent children exercise three or fewer days a week, while a tenth spend more than four hours in front of a phone, television or computer screen every day.

The OEA report noted that other states are taking steps within their schools to respond to childhood obesity. Sixteen, for example, require minimum amount of times in P.E. in elementary school, while 10 provide professional development designed specifically for P.E. teachers.

Eating healthier is another area where our schools are working to make a difference. Early last year, a Kentucky Health Issues Poll found that about two-thirds of parents polled said they thought their children’s meals are very or somewhat nutritious, although the numbers varied considerably when breaking them down by region. Most parents also expressed an interest in having more school meals prepared on-site.

Many schools, meanwhile, have begun offering meals throughout the summer, to ensure children don’t go hungry and are more likely to get the nutrients they need. Kentucky also is among the states taking part in a national farm-to-school program, which can now be found in more than 40 percent of school districts across the country.

Finding ways to reduce obesity rates is arguably the biggest public-health challenge the United States faces in the years ahead. Getting the numbers to where they were 20 years ago would save lives, improve quality of life and reduce medical bills by hundreds of billions of dollars. Schools can play a major role in that effort, but it will take a year-round, multi-pronged solution to truly make a difference. The one thing we know is that we can’t let the trends of the past two decades continue at the same pace.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions regarding this issue, I would like to know. My address is Room 329E, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at Mike.Denham@lrc.ky.gov.

To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.

I would like to add that this newspaper column was prepared at my direction by legislative staff. I provided information I thought was important and approved it as written.


State Rep. Mike Denham is a Democrat from Maysville and has represented House District 70 (Bracken, Fleming and Mason counties) since 2001.

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