Harris County officials and local school districts are working to reduce childhood obesity—a condition that could add billions to health care costs and affect the health of this generation of children as they become adults.
In Harris County, 47 percent of children were classified as overweight or obese in 2012, according to Growing Up in Houston, a study conducted by the United Way.
The figure has prompted county officials and local nonprofits to promote healthy eating and a more active lifestyle at an early age in recent years in addition to lobbying for legislation to combat the high obesity rates.
Meanwhile, school districts are encouraging healthy lifestyles through before- and after-school programs, meals with less sugar and summer nutrition programs.
“This is a societal and cultural issue that we’ve built over three decades,” said Tim Schauer, a health care lobbyist for Cornerstone Government Affairs. “It will take a generation or two to move it back toward healthy living,” he said.
People are classified as overweight by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if their body mass index—a calculation based on an individual’s height and weight—is between the 85th and 95th percentiles. A person whose BMI is above the 95th percentile is considered obese.
The high obesity rate has led to a rise in children with adult diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and joint pains, said Ann Barnes, who is the chief medical officer at Legacy Community Health. Legacy is a network of full-service clinics across the Greater Houston area.
“Childhood obesity comes with an estimated price tag of $19,000 per child when comparing lifetime medical costs to those of a normal-weight child,” Barnes said.
Nearly 30 percent of children are classified as overweight or obese in the Lake Houston area, according to Healthy Living Matters, a public-private collaboration created by Harris County Public Health. However, the area has diverse income levels, which creates more factors that necessitate different solutions, said Umair Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health.
While poor food choices and sedentary behavior are some of the primary contributors to childhood obesity, in lower socioeconomic areas, obesity has also been linked to food deserts, which are areas where a large number of residents are not within walking distance of a full-service grocery store, Barnes said.
When combined with a lack of transportation options, some parents in low-income areas are forced to purchase their groceries from gas stations and drug stores, Barnes said. The areas usually also feature a high density of fast-food restaurants, she said.
“If a neighborhood doesn’t have easy access to a full-service grocery store or a farmers market, families have less access to foods that would promote healthy eating,” Barnes said.
While some Lake Houston neighborhoods are more affluent and have access to healthy food and safe play spaces, such as Kingwood, Summerwood and Fall Creek, others—like parts of Humble and New Caney—are considered food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This duality can be observed in Humble ISD. The number of students considered economically disadvantaged by the Texas Education Agency at Kingwood High School is 5 percent, while the rate jumps to 62 percent at Humble High School.
Harris County Public Health fears the problem with obesity could become generational, as unhealthy children become obese adults, said Gwen Sims, director of nutrition and chronic disease prevention at HCPH.
“It starts very early; the concerns are we might see this increase because unhealthy kids are at risk for becoming unhealthy adults,” Sims said.
Humble and New Caney ISDs are working to solve the complex issues associated with obesity in the area.
The school districts plan to create healthy school nutrition plans, develop physical activity programs and limit the sale of drinks with added sugars, district officials said.
HISD offers healthy breakfast and lunch at four schools—Park Lakes and North Belt elementary schools, Sterling Middle School and Atascocita High School—four days per week during the summer, said Helen Wagner, physical education and wellness coordinator.
All children under 18 years old are eligible to have meals in the program.
“We do not believe that one model fits all, but when it comes to the health and well-being of our students, we use a coordinated approach that meets the needs of all,” Wagner said.
NCISD offers before- and after-school activities at its elementary schools, such as a jump rope team, running programs, walking programs and a golf program called First Tee Golf. The district also hosts family fitness nights and fun run events, said Scott Powers, NCISD executive director of public relations.
Meanwhile, the county is creating awareness through public-private partnerships like Healthy Living Matters and purchasing green space for parks and trails in Humble and Atascocita that will allow for a encourage more active lifestyles.
County officials said in May that a plan is being developed to create more trails in Atascocita using rights of way owned by the Harris County Flood Control District. This move comes on the heels of an expansion of the green space in Humble and the purchase of 19 acres to create a park in Atascocita this year.
“You have to rely on people to take the initiative on their own families and households,” Shah said. “But … a family doesn’t make the decision to build a park near their home.”
Home, Business Efforts
Parents and guardians can limit childhood obesity by creating a healthy eating and activity plan and sticking to it, especially as children begin the summer break, Shah said.
More options are available now for planning a healthy lifestyle in the area.
Several businesses and restaurants such as Pure Passion Pilates, Orangetheory Fitness, Sutton’s Community Garden and Farmer’s Market, Fitness Connection and Salata have opened or announced plans in the past six months.
“Health isn’t just in a hospital, emergency department or clinic,” Shah said. “We call it a health care system, but it’s oftentimes a disease care system.”