About 36 percent of students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are overweight or obese – that according to a new study published by the Alaska Division of Public Health.
The impetus if the study came from MAPP – or Mobilizing for Action Through Planning and Partnerships – a Homer coalition that has been working to collect health-related information across the Kenai Peninsula. In 2010, MAPP compiled health data on students on the southern Kenai Peninsula. The school board found that information useful and decided to expand it district-wide.
The latest study was conducted last school year using data collected by school nurses as part of an annual student health assessment. State analysts at the Department of Health and Social Services used height and weight values to calculate body mass index for more than 7-thousand students in all grades, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The findings were shared with the School Board at its meeting Monday and have been published online.
District Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater says he was not surprised by the results.
"It's a little disappointing ... (but ) I am not that surprised," said Atwater. "We are a less than healthy group of people and we need to improve that."
The numbers on the Kenai Peninsula are not much different than the rest of the state. Students in the Anchorage School District have been found to be at about the same 36 percent level as the Kenai Peninsula but a study in the Mat-Su Valley found only about 26 percent of students to be overweight or obese.
Here on the peninsula, The study found that 63 percent of students are at a healthy weight and just over one percent are underweight. Males are slightly more likely to be overweight or obese than females, 37.6 percent to 34.1 percent. The grade with the highest percentage of overweight students was pre-kindergarten with 42.3 percent, while only 30.8 percent of 3rd graders fell into that category.
The study found that racial and ethnic minorities – particularly Alaska Native and American Indian students – were at a higher risk particular risk, with nearly half of them overweight or obese.
Atwater says the school district has already taken several measures in recent years to combat the obesity problem among students, including banning junk foods in school vending machines and offering fresh fruit and vegetables at many schools.
The district has also been recognized for its education efforts concerning nutrition and exercise, he said.
On the state level, the Department of Health and Social Services launched the “Play Every Day” campaign earlier this year, to raise awareness about the risks of childhood obesity and to encourage children to be more physically active.
The MAPP coalition has also responded to the problem, implementing several school-based childhood obesity prevention initiatives supported by the school district administration, including USDA “People’s Garden” projects on school grounds, a school-based nutrition education pilot project and collaboration with “Nature Rocks Homer,” a group focused on access to outdoor physical activity for children.
Dr. Ward Hurlburt is Alaska’s chief medical officer. He considers childhood obesity the predominant public health threat of this generation, because obese children are more likely to experience health problems like diabetes and asthma.
Atwater says the study will be repeated annually and the data gathered will be used as a baseline to measure future progress. The complete report can be found at the Department of Health and Social Services website, dhss.alaska.gov.