Public school and Harris County health officials are working to tamp down an epidemic of 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.
An individual is classified as overweight by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if the individual’s body mass index, which is a calculation based on the person’s height and weight, is between the 85th and 95th percentile.
The high obesity rate has led to a rise in the number of children who have 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, according to an analysis led by researchers at Duke [University],” Barnes said. “When multiplied by the number of obese 10-year-olds in the United States, lifetime medical costs for this age reach roughly $14 billion.”
Local school districts, nonprofits and Harris County have responded to these concerns with a host of programs to promote healthy lifestyles.
While poor food choices and sedentary behavior are some of the primary contributors to childhood obesity, the problem is more complex and could require government influence in some communities, Barnes said.
“If the neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks, isn’t well-lit and has stray dogs, then children are less likely to walk, play or [bike] outside,” she said.
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.
“The concerns are [that] we might see this increase because unhealthy kids are at risk for becoming unhealthy adults,” Sims said.
More than 50 percent of children in state House District 126, which includes a portion of the Spring and Klein area, are classified as overweight or obese, according to HCPH. In District 150, less than 30 percent of children are classified as overweight or obese, but when researchers examine obesity alone, the number is between 17 percent and 27 percent.
Some parts of Spring and Klein ISDs, such as the Champion Forest area in KISD, are affluent and have access to healthy food and safe play spaces, while other areas, such as parts north of FM 1960 and west of I-45, are considered food deserts. A food desert is a low-income census tract where a large portion of residents is more than one mile from the nearest supermarket, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Obesity has been linked to food deserts in lower socio-economic areas, said Umair Shah, executive director at HCPH. When parents lack public transportation options in these areas, some are forced to purchase their groceries from gas stations and drug stores.
“In certain communities, you may have certain lifestyles [that include] watching movies or watching TV or video games and not going outside,” Shah said. “But then in other communities, you have food insecurity issues, where you don’t have access to fresh foods and vegetables.”
Some schools serve areas with significantly higher rates of economically disadvantaged students. For example, the proportion of students at Klein High School in KISD that the Texas Education Agency considers economically disadvantaged is 26.5 percent, but the number jumps to 68.6 percent at Westfield High School in SISD. The statewide average is 59 percent.
SISD and KISD are working to solve the complex issues associated with unhealthy weight in children by creating healthy school nutrition plans, finding financial sources for wellness programs and providing options for students who do not have access to nutritious meals at home.
SISD provides free breakfast to all students during the school year, and its Summer Feeding Program offers children under the age of 18 access to free breakfast and lunch at 13 district campuses throughout the summer, said Lupita Hinojosa, chief of school leadership and student support services at SISD. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds the program.
“Our district takes the health and well-being of our students very seriously,” Hinojosa said. “Programs and practices are in place that promote healthy lifestyles, which include health classes, physical education classes and healthy meals.”
KISD employed a wellness coordinator through a program from 2012 to 2015 through a one-time partnership that helped to reduce the district’s obesity rate from 17.7 percent to 17.1 percent, KISD Health Services Coordinator Laurie Combe said.
Other initiatives have been implemented to build upon the success the district reported during that period, including continuing efforts to obtain grants and donations to promote wellness programs, Combe said.
District nurses and physical education teachers also plan annual community health fairs, and the district partners with the Houston Food Bank on the Backpack Buddy program, which sends meals home with children in need on weekends.
Meanwhile, public and private entities work together to influence public policy through initiatives like the HCPH program Healthy Living Matters.
The program aims to guide policy at local, county and state levels to encourage healthy lifestyle practices, project Director Rocaille Roberts said. Legislation supported by HLM has included topics such as increasing recess time and health education in schools, Roberts said.
Northwest Assistance Ministries, headquartered at FM 1960 and Kuykendahl Road, addresses some of the challenges of families living in areas that have limited access to fresh food or transportation.
“Within a five-mile radius of NAM’s office, there are no sidewalks for people to access resources, [and] access to public transportation is limited,” NAM Children’s Clinic Director Abiya Malhotra said.
An abundance of fast food, paired with few health food options and safe places to play, are factors that impair children’s health in that area, she said.
NAM’s Healthy Living Program, which began in 2015, provides intervention for children identified as overweight or obese by a primary care provider working at the NAM Children’s Clinic. Through the program, the child’s weight and BMI are monitored for eight weeks, and the health care provider works with family to find solutions for the weight problem.
Officials said the responsibility for childhood health is one shared by the community and not the exclusive domain of the family.
“You have to rely on people to take the initiative on their own families and households, but you also have to rely on the systems to make sure that the healthy choice is the easy choice,” Shah said. “A family doesn’t make the decision to build a park near their home.”
While nutrition and food quality are important factors contributing to childhood obesity, they are not the only factors, said Tim Schauer, vice president at Houston-based Cornerstone Government Affairs, where he is a consultant and advocate on public policy relating to health care.
“How much [children] play is important—whether they have safe communities to play in, whether they have recess at schools,” Schauer said.
The Spring and Klein area has seen a recent surge in indoor play parks, with several opening this year before the summer heat arrives. Trampoline parks such as Urban Air Trampoline and Adventure Park on Holzwarth Road and Flip N’ Fun Center on West Richey Road have opened this year, and several additional parks are planned on Kuykendahl Road.
Other facilities offer fitness programs in summer months when students who normally depend on physical education classes for exercise may have fewer activity options.
InSPIRE Rock, an indoor climbing center on East Louetta Road, holds a 10-week summer program with a half- or full day of activities.
“We want kids to learn fundamentals and techniques about rock climbing, and we want them to get fit in the process,” InSPIRE Rock owner Paul Short said. “[Rock climbing] is a good cardio workout as well; it is a core workout.”
Experts said it will take a concerted effort to steer young people to healthy practices to prevent adulthood obesity.
“This is a societal and cultural issue that we have built over three decades,” Schauer said. “[It will take] an entire generation or two to move it back toward healthy living. The way to start solving a problem is to identify it and admit we have a problem.”