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Making the Grade in Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK, AR — School-age children in Arkansas are hoping they measure up this year. But it's not grades they should worry about — it's their weight. This year, Arkansas became the first state to test each child's body-mass index (BMI) to see whether they are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

In 2003, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee prompted this new initiative, which requires each school in the state to measure their students' BMIs. The objective of the initiative (Act 1220) is to improve the health of Arkansas' children. Act 1220 removed vending machines from elementary schools and gave secondary schools limited access to the machines. It also gave physical education and nutritional advice to schools. The act was responsible for creating the Arkansas Child Health Advisory Committee, which enlisted the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) to develop and implement a plan for standardized BMI screening for Arkansas' school children.

Every child in the state had to be tested by the end of the 2003-2004 school year, and results of the testing were released at the beginning of June. Parents were sent a letter describing the results of their child's testing, as well as a scale showing where their child ranked from underweight to overweight. The letter included tips for proper nutrition and exercise, so parents could help get their child back into shape.

So, how do the students of Arkansas measure up? Looking at the 450,000 screening results, things don't look good. Forty percent of school-age children in Arkansas are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. Twenty-two percent of children from kindergarten through 12th grade are overweight, while 18 percent are at risk of becoming overweight. Thirty-eight percent of Arkansas' Caucasian public school students, 43 percent of African-American students and 47 percent of Hispanic students fall into the overweight or at-risk category.

Fifty-eight percent of all Arkansas school children are of normal weight, and two percent are underweight.

These numbers may seem shocking to some, but Gov. Huckabee isn't surprised.

“Unfortunately, none of us can deny that Arkansas is one of the least healthy states in the country,” Huckabee said earlier this year in an official radio address. “We eat too much. We exercise too little. Too many people smoke.”

Huckabee has lost more than 100 pounds since 2002 when he was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes.

“I think there has been a lot of discussion among health care providers that this (overweight children) was an issue that was looming. It was getting bigger by the minute,” said Joy Rockenbach, program director for the BMI initiative at ACHI. “The results don't tell us anything we couldn't already guess. Our state is overweight.”

Reactions to the results have been mixed. “There are still some [parents] that are probably in denial. Over time, we've developed a perception of what is normal. Our norm has changed in many cases,” Rockenbach said. This change in the norm creates a false impression of what is and isn't healthy. Though some parents and citizens have complained that the testing is a misuse of information and tax dollars, other parents have embraced the results. Rockenbach said that the testing results even opened up conversations between parents and their children.

State health officials hope that the test results will help make families, educators, doctors and even politicians more aware of the childhood obesity problem.

“I think the long-term goals as far as our state is concerned are that we begin to see a decrease in the number of children, and therefore adults, who are at-risk or overweight,” Rockenbach said. “We'd like to see changes in the policies at the local government level, like communities that make changes in their environment: more parks, better sidewalks, work sites that reward employees that stay in good shape. We also hope to see decreasing insurance costs, reduced health care costs and a decline in risky diseases like diabetes.”

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