State releases childhood obesity audit

SUZANNE BUMPWESTFIELD – A new audit has found that the vast majority of public schools in Massachusetts are complying with state regulations regarding school nutrition, physical education and measuring student body mass index.
Yesterday’s report from state Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office found some schools failed to report the body mass information to the state Department of Public Health or adopt policies for administering the tests, which measure body fat based on height and weight.
The audit concluded that the health department is properly administering $22 million in federal funds intended to combat childhood obesity
The audit also recommends lawmakers consider requiring 30 minutes of physical activity per school day for elementary-school students and 45 minutes for middle- and high-school students.
In Massachusetts, nearly 11 percent of children under 18 are considered obese.
According to the audit, the obesity rate among children ages 10-17 sits just above 30 percent, ranking Massachusetts 25 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
While the statistics evaluated in the audit were not boiled down district-by-district, 60 schools throughout the Commonwealth – including Gateway Junior and Senior High School in Huntington – participated in the audit, which concluded that while the Commonwealth’s public schools have “complied with nutrition standards and health screening requirements for students, the schools’ physical education activities “lack consistency and do not meet established national standards.”
“Our children are our future and the state of childhood obesity has been troubling,” said Bump. “We have made progress, but with one in three children in our state either overweight or obese, we should be ever vigilant on the path towards a healthier Commonwealth.”
Bump’s audit concluded that 32.3 percent of the state’s 1st, 4th, 7th, and 10th grade students are overweight/obese.
It also found that of children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, 80 percent are overweight; that 33 percent of boys and 39 percent of girls born in 2000 will develop diabetes if current trends continue; and that 75 percent of overweight adolescents are likely to be obese as adults.
In addition to diabetes, the audit also links childhood obesity to increased risks of asthma and orthopedic problems, along with cardiovascular diseases such as increased blood pressure and cholesterol, behavioral problems and depression.
While she is currently serving as a nurse at Fort Meadow Early Childhood Center, Ann Marie Belden spent a decade working with older children in the Chicopee School System and said obesity has been an issue for some time now, not just in Massachusetts, but around the world.
“What do I think has contributed to it? Diet, the video games, kids sitting at home watching high amounts of television” said Belden.
As to what school districts like Westfield can do to avert the scourge of obesity in it’s classrooms, Belden believes the exercise that students get in pre-Kindergarten needs to continue.
“I think that is something that is taken away from the kids,” she said. “When I was in school, we had phys ed every single day and they don’t have that anymore.”
According to the audit, 57 percent of Massachusetts high-school students were not meeting the recommended 60-minute physical activity level recommended by the New England Healthcare Institute as of 2011 and only 18 percent of Massachusetts schools offered daily gym classes as of 2010, compared to 30 percent nationwide.
“We have open gym times for these kids every day and if they go outside, they go outside,” Belden added. “Here at Fort Meadow they have physical activity every single day.”
Outside of school, physical activity among children seems to be declining in the state. Despite being a middle-of-the-road state in terms of the obesity rate, Massachusetts ranks near the bottom nationally with regards to whether children spend the recommended hour a day exercising.
The audit also stated that 63 percent of Bay State children were not physically active for 60 minutes per day for at least 5 days per week, while only 37 percent reported walking, biking, rollerblading, or skateboarding to or from school on at least one day during the school week. In fact, only 19 percent reported using these transportation modes each school day, as opposed to 26 percent reporting watching three or more hours of television on school days.
While he declined to comment on whether he’s seen a rise on childhood obesity, Westfield Parks and Recreation Director James Blascak touted athletic leagues being offered by the city as a way to get kids involved in healthy activities outside of school.
“In Westfield in general, there are plenty of sports to pick from, whether they are travel teams like Suburban basketball or Westfield United soccer,” he said. “Or if you just want to play in the regular recreation leagues, we have soccer and basketball, lacrosse, baseball…”
Blascak said that the recreation league seasons run for several months of intense competition.
“For our suburban league – boy’s and girl’s fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades – it’s $150 and that gets you two to three practices a week and one to two games a week,” he said while blowing up 50 basketballs yesterday afternoon. “Games start in the beginning of December and go through the end of February. Practices will start mid-October.”
The city’s rec basketball league costs $60 for nine- and ten-year-olds, while participants in older divisions will be charged $90.
“They just do one game and one practice a week, with games starting at the end of October and we’ll play into March,” Blascak said, adding that there was great participation in youth sports last year. “We had 400 players in our rec league alone, and that’s not counting five-, six-, seven- and eight-year old’s from the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA.”
Blascak said there were six boys teams participating in Suburban basketball last year totaling 60 players while there were two girls teams with about 30 players.
The state audit concluded that children who fall below the poverty line are more likely to be obese and Blascak stated that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has scholarship aid available to help children whose parents cannot afford for their kids to play youth sports.
“Parents or guardians can come in and fill out a financial assistance form, so there are scholarships available,” he said.

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