Arkansas Schools Continue Healthy Changes to Curb Obesity

By Nate Hinkel

The report finds that only 23 percent of adolescent students said they had access to food vending machines at school, which is significantly less than the 64 percent reported in Act 1220’s first-year evaluation, both 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

Overall, the report finds that only 20 of the 863 Arkansas schools researchers surveyed reported that they offered students food or beverages for purchase within a school store this year.

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 people 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.

“This review process confirms that Act 1220 is indeed 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 also found a growing comfort and familiarity among school officials and parents with school-based Body Mass Index (BMI) measures and the process by which results are reported. The percentage of school principals noting some level of difficulty with BMI reporting has been cut in half since its first year (32 percent to 16 percent), while more parents are signing their children up for extracurricular sports and noticing no increase in weight-based teasing as a result of the BMI reports.

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 students’ BMI in grades 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 each year, and send parents a confidential report with 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 healthy-weight peers for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and orthopaedic problems.

For the first time, the sixth-year evaluation asked parents about their perceptions of the obesity epidemic and the role of schools in combating it. A majority of parents (52 percent) believed childhood obesity is a serious problem in Arkansas. Year six data also unveiled that families were making breakfast before school a priority. Eighty-four percent of parents reported their child ate breakfast every day before school.

Also for the first time, students reported a significant decrease in the frequency of eating at fast-food restaurants, down from 6.5 times per week in year one to 4.9 times in year six.

“This is the first year we’ve seen that both parents and children have heightened awareness of the issues and have made significant improvements in several key areas,” Phillips said. “Not only are we creating a healthier school environment, with parents’ help we’re also starting to see changes in students’ behaviors that complement and support state efforts in our public schools.”

UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Related Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a 540,000-square-foot hospital; six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has 2,775 students and 748 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 the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 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. Visit or