Score One for Us in Philadelphia vs. Fat

A look at the report behind the good—and bad—news.

It’s no secret at this point that our grandiose nation is grappling with an appropriately sizable obesity epidemic, wrought by the subsidization, shoddy production and media prostitution of crappy foods. And in the countrywide war for health, Philadelphia has fought our fair share of battles, ranked as we’ve been among the fattest big cities in the nation. Yet last week, a small ray of hope officially struck ground within our city limits; the public health department, in cooperation with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, put out a report stating that childhood obesity in the Philly school system fell by five percent between 2006 and 2010.

In view of the fact that, according to the report, one of every 12 children in the Philadelphia school system is severely obese (that is not just dangerously overweight, but already suffering from obesity-related afflictions like diabetes and high blood pressure), this overall reduction is no small feat. Of particular note—as James Marks, director of the RWJ Foundation’s Health Group, points out in the report’s commentary—is the fact that the largest percentages of decrease were found among African American boys and Hispanic girls, two of the populations that traditionally rank highest in obesity rates. In addition, statistically significant reductions were found overall in students who qualify for state-sponsored lunch programs. As Marks put it, ”Communities of color and lower-income communities have been hardest hit by the obesity epidemic overall,” vulnerable as these sectors of society tend to be to a market glutted with cheap, unhealthy food options. And while childhood obesity rates have gone down to some small extent in multiple cities across the country, Marks emphasizes in his commentary that other communities haven’t had similar success in addressing these kinds of disparities.

When asked about the most successful methods in Philly’s fight against fat, Marks and the study’s lead author, Giridhar Maliya, cited the wide variety of city-instituted programs that have taken root in the past 10 to 15 years, including but not limited to the Eat Right Now nutrition education program (providing nutrition education to students eligible for SNAP), Mayor Nutter’s 2010 “Get Healthy Philly” initiative, and the Food Trust’s healthy corner store initiative, the largest in the country.

But while both men seemed heartened by these results, Maliya was quick to put his findings in context: “We’re hopeful that change is possible based on these data, but humbled by the fact that the magnitude of the problem continues to be really great. In the latest year of data, 20 percent of children in Philadelphia are obese and eight percent are severely obese.” Our childhood obesity numbers may be decreasing, but they’re still higher than the national average.

And indeed, though the eight percent decline in obesity among African-American boys does inspire hope, the fact that it’s accompanied by a relatively small decrease in obesity for African-American girls—a fact Maliya cited as continued evidence that “girls are less active than boys,” overall—is pretty terrifying, as is the notion it calls to mind that girls are somehow still being encouraged to sit home and knit while the boys go out to run and play.

What’s more, the study has revealed conclusive evidence that Philly’s incidence of severe obesity is highest in middle-school-age children, grades six through eight. And while it’s hardly surprising that those brutal years of puberty onset and social tribulation might be accompanied by unhealthy lifestyle choices (who wouldn’t turn to some cheap and available Ding Dongs for comfort in the face of seventh-grade study hall?), it’s truly terrible to think that a kid’s physical, emotional and mental development during those crucial years might be ripped to shreds by an onslaught of over-processed and over-marketed Kandy Kakes.

Clearly, this study has raised as many questions as it has hopes. Maybe along with those nutrition education courses should come a few free counseling sessions for tortured middle-schoolers seeking solace in the latest Nabisco creme-filled invention. After all, as Marks of RWJ opined in his commentary, “You’re always being asked, ‘If you had to do one thing, what would you do,’ and the answer is, you’ve gotta do it all.” Maybe—in addition to finally tackling the corporations that peddle this crap so shamelessly, and the subsidies that allow those corporation’s prices to remain as artificially cheap as their ingredients—we as a nation should start asking what else is contributing to our childrens’ desire to fill their stomachs, minds and hearts with blissfully numbing sugar and fat?