Obesity rates among Philadelphia schoolchildren have dropped significantly since the 2006-07 school year, according to new findings released Thursday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.
The newly unveiled study shows that obesity rates decreased from 21.5 percent in 2006-07 to 20.5 percent in the 2009-10 school year. That’s a nearly 5 percent drop among students over the course of four years.
Both male and female students from all racial and ethnic groups saw decreases and notably, the most significant drops were found among the groups that historically have had the highest rates of obesity. For example, African American males saw a decline from 20.7 percent to 19.1 percent. Rates for female Hispanics decreased from 22.3 percent to 20.6 percent.
“It is meaningful, very clearly, both statistically significant and also as a proof of concept,” said James Marks, a senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) during a podcast interview about the study. “It’s not large enough to get us back where we were 30 years ago, but we really hope it signals a turning point.”
The city of Philadelphia long has been identified as a leader in the effort to reverse childhood obesity. Mayor Michael Nutter has made it a priority of his administration. Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations such as the Food Trust, which works to bring fresh produce into underserved communities, have served as model programs for other cities to follow.
The study released Thursday specifically points to school-based policies and programs, both at the city and state level, as another reason why obesity rates dropped.
For example, the Philadelphia School District removed sodas and other sugary drinks from school vending machines, and set nutritional standards for snacks sold in the machines and a la carte in the cafeteria. Breakfast is provided for free to all students, the district no longer uses fryers and cafeterias have switched from 2 percent milk to 1 percent low-fat milk.
The district also implemented a comprehensive wellness policy, which includes additional nutrition guidelines, along with provisions for physical activity and nutrition education. Pennsylvania also provides nutrition education for students and parents who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
In his interview, Marks noted that while some other jurisdictions have reported decreases in childhood obesity rates — New York City reported a similar drop in December — there hasn’t yet been a decline in national rates. But the news from the City of Brotherly Love shows that when people work together to improve the health of young people, progress indeed can be made.
“We’re hopeful that as more and more communities that make changes like Philadelphia has made, that we will see these changes as a whole,” said Marks, who is also a PreventObesity.net Leader. “No single intervention is going to turn this thing around. It really takes a lot of changes.”
The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Get Healthy Philly. Click here to read the full study.
Editors Note: PreventObesity.net is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Click here to connect with James Marks.