Tackling Childhood Obesity in Alameda County

Did you know that more than a third of school-aged children in Alameda County are considered overweight or obese?

Although the residents of Alameda County fare slightly better than the rest of the nation, a deeper examination of these rates in Alameda County reveals a trend. Specifically, within Alameda County, the rates of childhood obesity and being overweight varies greatly depending on the child’s race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, as well as other social determinants of health.

People who experience food insecurity face unique challenges in adopting and maintaining healthy behaviors both in schools and at home. Research shows that people who live near a high concentration of fast food restaurants and convenience stores have a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes than those who live near grocery stores and fresh produce vendors.

There is concern about access to fresh produce within specific cities in Alameda County. A report by the nonprofit organization ChangeLab Solutions found that only 5.3% of Oakland’s food stores are considered large as opposed to 11% in the rest of the country.

Children and adolescents consume a significant portion of their daily calorific intake at school. Thus, schools have been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, the White House, and the Office of the Surgeon General as a focal point for obesity prevention.

At the federal level, there have been recent improvements to the National School Lunch Program to provide more nutritionally balanced meals for low-income students. These improvements are particularly significant considering nearly half of students’ daily caloric intake comes from school breakfasts and lunches.

At the local level, ChangeLab Solutions in its report identified healthy eating in schools as a potential focus in future policy interventions. Furthermore, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has been lauded for its commitment to go beyond the federal minimum standards to provide students with the most nutritious school meals possible.

Still, despite these policy changes and local efforts, both anecdotal and objective data have shown that children are not actually eating the nutritionally balanced meals provided.

OUSD school nurses who were interviewed in the report expressed their belief that the lack of nutrition education in schools might be a potential contributor to the unhealthy eating habits among school-aged youth. OUSD students do not have a dedicated class or curriculum for nutrition, and physical education and health are often combined into one subject. While the nurses have the skills and ability to provide basic nutritional counseling, their time is mostly spent caring for acute health issues that arise in schools.

Over the years, several programs in Alameda County have been proactively filling this void in nutrition education. For example, schools have hosted community health fairs, cooking classes, farmers markets, and “Harvest of the Month” programs in the past. Challenges within these programs arise from their sustainability. In addition to funding, they often depend on staff or parent volunteers to champion and maintain them.

One group at UC Berkeley that address this issue is Kids in Nutrition (KIN), which is a health education program that brings together college and elementary school students in an interactive class environment. With KIN, college student volunteers become “KINstructors” who teach lessons consisting of games, posters, group work, drawing, skits, and weekly challenges.

“At KIN, we believe that education is the most effective way to raise awareness and ultimately prevent childhood obesity,” said Saba Mila Partovi, a junior at UC Berkeley who has been a KINstructor since her sophomore year. “We hope to empower the younger generation to lead healthy and active lives by being their role models and showing them it’s fun to eat right.”