Allegheny County health director taking on obesity problem in schools

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The Allegheny County Health Department's new anti-obesity offensive has started to gather data that confirm a plus-size problem in schools, and compilation of more precise information will eventually help it target new programs and initiatives aimed at slimming the silhouette of county residents.

Health Department executive director Karen Hacker said state statistics for school students in the county show more of them are heavier than the national average, and the percentage of overweight students isn't declining as it is in some other parts of the U.S.

"The good news is it's been constant. The bad news is it isn't going down," Dr. Hacker said, citing state Department of Health statistics going back to 2005. "Given all the interventions that are already in place, we need to ask if we're missing something. We need to find out if there are other areas in which we could be doing something."

According to the school district data supplied by the state Department of Health, about 30 percent of Allegheny County students have a body mass index or BMI -- a measure of body fat -- above the 85th percentile. The national average is approximately 25 percent above the 85th percentile. A child who falls in the 85th percentile is considered at risk of becoming overweight and those above the 95 percentile are overweight.

About 16 percent of the students in Allegheny County's schools are at the 95th percentile or above.

Dr. Hacker said the BMI statistics show that school districts throughout Pennsylvania are having similar problems reducing their percentages of overweight students, even though there are a number of public programs aimed at reducing the percentage of overweight students.

"It's a complex issue with a number of factors from food choices to recreation opportunities to neighborhood safety," Dr. Hacker said. "And there are gaps in certain parts of Allegheny County where fewer things are happening."

As examples she cited "health inequities" in the Mon Valley, "food deserts" where healthy food choices aren't available and schools where exercise isn't a priority.

She told the health board at its meeting last week that the anti-obesity initiative she launched in August shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh from Boston to head the department already has broad support and a number of potential partners. She said the effort, tentatively dubbed Active Allegheny, will build on a wide range of existing weight-control programs and draw on support and expertise from the city and county schools, health care and nutrition professionals, unions, foundations and community groups.

But its success will depend on filling gaps in programming and data needed to identify where such public health efforts can be most effective.

She said the county wants to get BMI data from the state for individual schools within school districts. That would allow educators and public health professionals to better target anti-obesity programs.

"It would be helpful to understand not only the districts with the highest rates but also the schools so we could pinpoint," Dr. Hacker said. "I think the role of the Health Department is to do public health surveillance and address areas where we find problems. We want to have an impact and getting the more detailed data would be really helpful."

A board task force, including Dr. Hacker and members Joylette Portlock, Ellen Stewart and Anthony Ferraro, will continue working to gather that data and begin development of comprehensive weight-loss programming.

Dr. Hacker has worked on obesity prevention programs in other states over the past decade where effective strategies have included workplace weight-loss initiatives, school-based education and activity efforts, and programs to reduce television and computer screen time and increase physical activity.

About 30 to 40 percent of the population nationally is overweight or obese.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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