PROVIDENCE - The number of children in Rhode Island who are obese is leveling off or declining, according to a new report by Rhode Island Kids Count, although an urgency to address the issue remains.
The embargoed data and recommendations were distributed to media for publication Thursday morning but formally released at a policy roundtable held at One Union Station in Providence later in the day.
Obesity is medically defined as the presence of excess body fat. Using an estimated Body Mass Index, which is a ratio of weight to height, youth with a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for their age and sex are considered obese. Youth with a BMI between the 85th and 95th percentiles for their age and sex are considered overweight.
Kids Count obtained statistics in three categories: for children participating in the special supplemental nutrition program for Women Infants and Children; for children enrolled in Head Start; and for high school students.
While there has been a 13-percent decline since 2011 in the number of children aged 1 to 4 participating in WIC who are categorized as obese, 11 percent of the 22,185 children enrolled in 2013, or 2,521, were obese, the report found.
Exceeding national rates, 20 percent of children enrolled in Head Start, or about 545, were obese, and 15 percent, or 425, were overweight, the report said.
Rates in high school for obesity or being overweight have not changed significantly since 2001, the report says; however, between 2011 and 2013, 11 percent of students were obese and 16 percent were overweight.
Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island helped develop the report.
“Our children are the future of Rhode Island and we are proud to partner with Kids Count to address the critical issue of childhood obesity,” Peter Andruszkiewicz, president and CEO of BCBSRI, said in a statement. “The data in this issue brief brings to light the magnitude of this epidemic and can help drive real action to combat childhood obesity.”
Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count, said that prevention efforts and “thoughtful” policy changes have begun to have “a positive impact.”
These changes include new federally mandated WIC food standards, ongoing preventive healthcare at Head Start locations, and strengthened nutritional standards for school meals and other food and beverages sold at schools, she said.
The report includes recommendations in six categories: for families, health care systems, communities, schools, child care and after-school programs, and data collection and coordination. Some of these recommendations call for:
The Rhode Island Department of Health, health care providers and other record keepers to collaborate on systematic collection of data reported by the Kidsnet system, which is under the purview of the state Department of Health;
The number of minutes required for physical education, or gym, in Rhode Island schools should increase to 150 minutes per week in elementary school and 225 minutes a week for middle and high school youth, to align with national allotments;
Professional development should be offered so all pediatric health care providers in Rhode Island can regularly track patient height, weight, and BMI and offer appropriate guidance and referrals.