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Reducing obesity in Alaska's schools

Jerzy Shedlock
The Alaska Obesity and Prevention and Control Program has aided school districts statewide to fight childrens' bulging waistlines, and this school year, it will begin putting boots on the ground to help schools at the front lines. Pictured are children playing in the St. Lawrence Island village of Gambell. August 29, 2012 Loren Holmes photo

In a state known for active outdoor enthusiasts and stocks of nutritious salmon, it may surprise people to know that the prevalence of childhood obesity in Alaska nearly mirrors national rates. The Alaska Obesity and Prevention and Control Program has aided school districts statewide to swim against the weight-gain current, and this school year, it will begin putting boots on the ground in an effort help schools reduce obesity rates.

Eight Alaska school districts have been awarded four-year grants that should improve students’ nutritional choices and physical activities, as well as increase communication among teachers, parents and administrators about the plans to deter youth from gravitating toward TV and McDonald’s and shying away from tomatoes and mountain biking.

Working with new policies

A total of 11 districts, about a fifth of the districts statewide, applied for the competitive grants. They were awarded based on a long list of criteria, but grant recipients' most important selling points were successful implementation of past obesity-related projects, strong support from administrators, and the ability to execute new policies at the district level.

The ability to actually use and work within new policies is an ongoing issue. Over the past decade, national lawmakers have set new health standards in an attempt to partially fix what some advocates say is a broken education system, and districts receiving federal lunch funds have been required to pass school wellness policies.

“But we’ve found that at a lot of schools, they’re getting nutritional food to kids, but they lack staff and time to coordinate extended work, such as physical and education initiatives,” said Alaska Department of Health and Social Services school grants manager Lauren Kelsey.  

Now, each of the eight selected districts will hire a coordinator tasked with developing programs and staying in touch with school nutritionists and the like. The new hires will also develop programs, some already underway in Alaska schools, such as serving local produce and salmon in cafeterias.

“We found from doing tobacco prevention and control that … you start seeing successes in years two, three, four,” said Obesity Prevention and Control Program Director Karol Fink. “The first year is to really just get the schools up to speed, but if you want to track success you need a little more time.”

Tracking obesity

Health and Social Services will focus the initial year of the grants largely on data collection. Alaska’s urban districts -- Anchorage, Mat-Su, and Kenai Peninsula -- track obesity in their schools. But rural districts do not generally track the numbers of out-of-shape kids.

Officials intend to slow the state's climbing obesity rates by teaching kids healthy habits at an early age. According to an Alaska Department of Health and Social Services 2012 report, the rates among adult Alaskans doubled from 13 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 2010.

Among Alaska high school students, as of last year, 26 percent are either overweight or obese. Alaska Native youth are significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than are white kids -- 32 percent versus 22 percent, respectively. And less than a quarter of high school students get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity, according to the DHHS report.

"Overweight" and "obesity" are both labels for ranges of weight greater than what is generally considered healthy for a given height, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. The ranges are determined by using weight and height to calculate a person’s body mass index, or BMI. Someone with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, and 30 or higher is obese. For example, a five-foot-nine individual who weighs between 169 to 202 pounds generally has a BMI within the overweight range. Any heavier and they’d be considered obese.

More than one-third, or 35.7 percent, of Americans are obese or overweight, according to the CDC. Nationally, about 33 percent of high-school-aged Americans are obese or overweight, Fink said. Inactivity and extra pounds often translate to health issues, which in turn produce medical expenses. Obesity costs Alaska $459 million each year in direct health care costs related to obesity.

The financial burden will only increase as the state struggles to implement federal health care mandates. State regulators have approved two insurers to begin offering health coverage on Alaska's insurance exchange, a provision of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) that aims to foster competition and consumer choice as a requirement takes effect that all individuals carry a health insurance plan.

Free fresh fish for students

Once data collection about obesity in participating school districts is finished, the focus can shift to designing programs. And the state’s Farms to Schools program is well underway in the Mat-Su.

The Talkeetna Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association started its Health Lifestyles program two years ago. The project’s three main goals are supporting local farmers and produce, improving student nutrition and knowledge about healthy diets, and facilitating communication among food service providers, administrators and the PTA.

Students visited a local potato farm and created “local food art” as part of the program.

Farms to Schools said in an annual report that during a school event, nearly 100 percent of students “accurately picked the healthier food choice when given the option between two foods,” though data will be collected this spring to make sure the lesson stuck.

And whether or not sweets-craving students pick vegetables over candy outside the classroom remains to be seen. According to the CDC, about 13 percent of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District’s students are obese, not just overweight.

Still, a salad bar was added to the school’s lunchroom, which was supplemented by the Birch Creek Farm, the community supported agricultural (CSA) operation consisting of 100 acres of hayfields, two acres of berry crops and commercial greenhouses. The salad bar should remain in place for at least the next four years thanks to the grant.

Perhaps more Alaskan is the Fish to Schools program, which falls under the farms program.

Local fishermen in the communities of Dillingham, Kodiak and Sitka dedicate entire days of fishing to catching salmon for students and donate the haul to their local school districts.

Kodiak is leading the pack. During the 2011-2012 school year, roughly 5,400 pounds of fish were donated to the island community’s school district. As of late May, when the Kodiak school district published its Farms to Schools annual report, about 500 pounds had been donated.

In some cases, students at those districts eat salmon once a week all year long.

“I think the beauty (of Alaska) is that we have potential to be healthier than the rest of the nation,” Fink said. “We have so many resources and we’re a rich state. We should be doing a better job, and we could be, and I think part of what we’re trying to do through the grant program is to start connecting all the dots and establishing protective factors.”

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com