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Obesity among Arkansas public school students rises to record level

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Arkansas Nonprofit News Network
42 Bar and Table staffer Melissa Hooper at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.

The childhood obesity rate among Arkansas public school students increased by 3.1%, during the 2020-2021 school year, which is significantly higher than typical year-to-year increases, according to a report from the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI). The increase coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted life for many.

Since 2003, the state has been able to track students' body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat based on height and weight, through Act 1220, which was signed into law by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican. Passage of Act 1220 created one of the nation’s first statewide, school-focused initiatives to help children reach and maintain a healthy weight, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Currently, 26% of children have a BMI that classifies them as obese, which is the highest percentage in the 18 years data has been collected. Mike Motley, director of analytics for ACHI, said the unprecedented spike in the childhood obesity rate could be a result of the pandemic.

“This is likely a result of decreases in physical activity and reduced access to healthy school meals as schools switched to virtual learning during times of high COVID-19 transmission,” Motley said.

According to a report by Feeding America, the percentage of children living in food insecure households, which are defined as homes without access to nutritious food, was at a 20-year low prior to the pandemic. The report credited the low unemployment rate prior to the pandemic for the historically low food insecurity rate for children.

In 2021, Arkansas had the sixth highest food insecurity rate among children at 22.9%, which is down from 24.4% in 2020. Prior to the pandemic, the state had a child food insecurity rate of 21.4%, which still ranked sixth highest at the time.

Motley explained children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults and that can be costly for the health care system.

“Overweight or obese children are more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, which can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and many other health problems,” he said. “Obesity-related health problems are estimated to cost the nation’s health care system $190 billion each year.”

Act 1220 created the Child Health Advisory Committee, which includes members from the Arkansas Department of Health, to provide policy recommendations to help lower the obesity rate. Motley said the committee is still active.

“Some of the more recent recommendations that directly or indirectly influenced policy are around schools,” Motley said. “Providing water bottle refilling stations, the regulation of vending machines in schools and what kind of items can be placed in those vending machines, making sure some vending machines only have water in them and making sure vending machines aren’t available at all times.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Arkansas also struggles with obesity amongst adults. The state ranks 47 in the adult-obesity rate with 36% of the adult population designated as obese in 2020.

To calculate your BMI and for more information, visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's website.