The number of obese and overweight third, fifth and eighth grade students in the Beaufort County School District has remained generally unchanged since last year, and obesity continues to be a “severe” problem in the county, according to a report released to the school board last week.
Local health officials, however, say reversing the trend can take years. They see the most recent figures as a “leveling off.” And that, they say, is a step forward.
“Any drop right now - any reduction - is actually considered going in right direction,” Matt Petrofes, regional health director for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said last week. “It’s encouraging even to have a leveling-off. It’s the first step in trying to reverse the trend.”
Jen Wright, chairman of Eat Smart Move More Lowcountry, a health group that helps compile the body mass index report, agreed with Petrofes.
“First we want to stop them from increasing,” she said. “Our measure of success at the moment is if we can stop it from increasing year after year.”
About 36 percent of third grade students, 41 percent of fifth grade students and 38 percent of eighth grade students are overweight or obese, according to the report, which calculated the BMI of each student. The students - about 83 percent in the three grades participated - were measured in October. Every school in the district participated in the study.
The third and eighth grades showed slight declines in the percentage of overweight and obese students, dropping less than one percentage point each since last year, according to the report.
The number of overweight and obese fifth grade students increased by more than two percentage points since last year, the report said.
All three grades have shown net decreases since data was first collected in 2006, according to the report.
The school district volunteered to participate in the study, Wright said.
“The purpose is not to point fingers - it’s to identify a problem,” she said. “... If we know what groups have a higher propensity (to be obese), it helps us focus our efforts in those areas.”
Wright said that all schools in the district have made changes to help cope with obesity.
In recent years, school lunches have included pizza made with whole-grain crust and more fresh fruits and vegetables, Wright said. Some schools have started exercise programs, such as walking groups, to help students get physical activity beyond gym class and recess, she said.
“It’s a culture change,” she said. “It’s a big task, but it’s possible.”
By RENEE DUDLEY