Schools, Parents Adjusting to State’s Efforts to Curb Obesity

By todd

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas’ public schools are stepping up efforts to keep junk food away from kids, and parents are encouraging more healthy habits at home, according to the fourth annual evaluation of Act 1220, a comprehensive and coordinated approach to addressing childhood obesity in schools and communities.


School superintendents now report that 61 percent of school districts in Arkansas have policies prohibiting junk foods in vending machines, up from just 18 percent in 2004, according to the evaluation conducted by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health. The full report can be found online at


School principals also report that 26 percent of vending items at schools are in a healthy category, up from 18 percent in the evaluation’s first survey four years ago.


With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the College of Public Health used interviews and surveys of teachers, administrators, students and their families and a variety of key informants to evaluate the impact of Act 1220 of 2003. The evaluation’s lead investigators are College of Public Health Dean Jim Raczynski, Ph.D., and Martha Phillips, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAMS Departments of Psychiatry and Epidemiology.


“Act 1220 is working to create a healthier environment in schools across the state,” Raczynski said. “Parents, students, school personnel and communities are working together to help our children establish healthy habits at a young age – and we’re integrating these important lessons into our public school system.”


The current evaluation found the majority of parents continue to be aware of body mass index (BMI) measurements, express minimal concern about keeping results confidential and indicate comfort with receiving a BMI report from school.


The BMI measurement is used as a screening method to identify possible weight-related health problems, and is a key part of Act 1220 and state leaders’ efforts to reduce obesity levels that have become epidemic in Arkansas and across the nation.


Public schools measure BMI for students in grades 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 each year, and send parents a confidential report including an explanation of potential obesity-related health risks and suggestions to help families improve nutrition and increase physical activity.


The health implications associated with obesity are serious, and this generation of children is being diagnosed with health problems previously seen only in adults. Obese children also are at greater risk than their normal-weight peers for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and orthopaedic problems.


The fourth-year evaluation revealed for the first time a trend among parents toward creating a healthier atmosphere at home, including limiting time in front of a television or video game screen to make more time for physical activity.  


“This is the first year we’ve seen that both parents and children are turning off televisions and video games in favor of physical activity—and limiting chips, soda and sweets eaten at home,” Phillips said. “Not only are we creating a healthier school environment, with parents’ help we’re also starting to see changes in the home environment that complement and support state efforts in our public schools.”


The report also revealed that 72 percent of students increased physical activity, up 10 percent from the previous year’s study.  


These most recent evaluation results come on the heels of a recent national study released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which shows no increase in the prevalence of obese children and teens between 1999-2000 and 2005-2006.  


Arkansas’ passage of Act 1220 has put the state in the national spotlight, and other states continue to look to Arkansas as a model for tackling their own obesity problems,” Raczynski said. “I think the comprehensive approach we’re taking in our public schools is making a difference, and we expect to see continued improvements.”


In addition, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement has secured funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support development and maintenance of a database containing the BMI measurements completed as a result of Act 1220.


UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a medical center, six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has 2,538 students and 733 medical residents. Its centers of excellence include the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. It is one of the state’s largest public employers with about 9,600 employees, including nearly 1,150 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS’ Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. UAMS and its affiliates have an economic impact in Arkansas of $5 billion a year. Visit