Less Than 10 percent of Schools Offer Low-Fat Snacks, Says UAMS Report Designed to Track Childhood Obesity Law

By todd

LITTLE ROCK – Less than 10 percent of Arkansas schools offer low-fat snacks, according to a report by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) delivered to state legislators today.


The report, presented to the House of Representatives Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, is a baseline evaluation that will be used to track the effectiveness of Act 1220 of 2003, which is designed to combat childhood obesity.


The report – the initial portion of a three-year evaluation of the implementation of Act 1220 – was presented by lead investigators Jim Raczynski, Ph.D., dean of the UAMS College of Public Health, and Martha Phillips, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAMS Colleges of Medicine and Public Health.


The UAMS College of Public Health, with the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, secured funding in February 2004 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support the partial implementation and the evaluation of Act 1220.


“We are looking at the effects the law may have on the school environment, knowledge concerning weight control, and family nutrition and physical activity behavior patterns,” Raczynski said. “Annual evaluation of activities will provide snapshots of policies and procedures and also allow us to see change over time.”


The baseline report looks at school nutrition policies, including vending machines snack options, and parents’ reaction to their children’s’ Body Mass Index (BMI) being taken at school. A person’s BMI – calculated using his height and weight – is used to determine if he is overweight or obese.


Last year, 85 percent of Arkansas schools had vending machines, but principals reported that only 18 percent of the items could be classified in the “healthier options” category, the report said.


While plans to measure students’ BMI drew public criticism from some who feared how it would affect student privacy and mental health, the report found that 70 percent of parents were comfortable with getting their child’s BMI health report.


“The expectation is that changing state and local policies regarding school vending machines, nutrition and physical activity will in turn change the knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of families and students,” Phillips said.


The initial report is based on interviews and surveys of school principals and superintendents, families whose children attend Arkansas public schools and individuals involved in developing Act 1220.


The information gathered over the past year shows that:


  • Less than 10 percent of schools reported offering low-fat snack options
  • The majority of schools (81 percent) reported that they collected $5,000 or less in annual revenues from vending machine sales, not counting signing bonuses, donation of billboards and other perks
  • Thirty-three percent of schools reported making changes in nutrition policies to comply with Act 1220 by increasing healthier vending machine options and/or limiting access to certain food items
  • Parents do not know national dietary recommendations – for example, only 30 percent indicated that five or more servings of fruits and vegetables should be eaten every day
  • Many parents reported trying to make changes for their children – for example:

    • Seventy-five percent limited consumption of snack foods
    • Sixty-three percent tried to change the family diet
    • Seventy-two percent tried to limit TV and computer time

  • Sixty-seven percent of parents believed that overweight children are likely to develop health problems
  • Seventy-five percent of parents were aware of the plan to measure children’s BMI
  • Parents do not know when their children are overweight – for example

    • Of children who are overweight, 51 percent of parents perceived them to be normal, and only 31 percent correctly saw them as overweight
    • Of children who are at risk for overweight, 73 percent incorrectly perceived them as normal

  • Ninety percent of parents, and 80 percent of children, reported that vending machines should contain either all healthy foods or at least healthy options
  • Two-thirds of adolescents reported trying to make changes to limit snack foods or eat healthier

Obesity has been recognized in recent years as a major public health problem. Among both adults and children, dramatically increasing rates of obesity have been noted with 25.1 percent of Arkansas adults now considered to be obese, another 36.8 percent considered to be overweight and at risk for health problems, and 40 percent of Arkansas children overweight or at risk for overweight.


Continued surveys and interviews of superintendents, principals, parents and students over the next few years will provide valuable information to better inform policy-making, evaluate the impact of Act 1220 on overweight among children, and provide the statewide Child Health Advisory Committee and local school boards and advisory committees information to create healthier school environments for children.


UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a medical center, five centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has about 2,200 students and 660 residents and is the state’s largest public employer with almost 9,000 employees. UAMS and its affiliates have an economic impact in Arkansas of $4.1 billion a year.


UAMS centers of excellence are the Arkansas Cancer Research Center, Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy and Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute.