One in every three students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is either overweight or obese. This ratio has held steady for at least the past three years.
The school district’s Health Services Department coordinates annually with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to determine the risk of obesity in local youth, which is analyzed through a weight status report. The summary for the 2014-2015 school year was presented to the Board of Education at its July 6 meeting.
“We don’t fall outside the realm of normal for a school district in Alaska,” said Health Services Coordinator Carmen Magee.
The weight and height of 7,116 students — 78 percent of the total number enrolled — in pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade comprised the most recent evaluated sample, according to the report. Eighteen percent of students are obese, 18 percent are overweight, 62 percent are at a healthy weight and 1 percent are underweight, according to the report.
Board member Penny Vadla said she was not shocked by the report.
“I don’t look at this as anything glaring,” Vadla said. “Do I look at this as something that can be improved up, absolutely.”
The analysis is used to shape board policy that affects physical activity, nutritional services and instructional courses aimed at educating students about healthy habits, Magee said.
School nurses are responsible for recording each student’s vitals, and do so in a private, anonymous setting, Magee said. No names are used in the report, she said.
The model used to analyze the collected data is the Body Mass Index, which she said is the one of the most commonly implemented way to assess the prevalence of obesity in school districts throughout the United States.
The system has some downsides, Magee said. It only takes into consideration the height and weight of a student to determine if they are healthy. Muscle is heavier than fat, so a student who is very active may have a higher BMI, but is actually still very healthy, she said. It also does not look at other factors such as blood pressure.
Vadla said the report provides a good amount of relevant information. It includes contributing socioeconomic factors, and suggests healthy eating habits for the percentage of students who qualify as overweight or obese, she said.
The BMI structure serves a purpose, said Karol Fink, Obesity Prevention and Control program director for the Alaska Division of Public Health’s Section of Chronic Disease and Prevention. The goal with BMI is to look at a larger population, and determine what percentage of a community is obese or overweight, she said.
From there, the risks for further health complications such as such as heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer related to obesity, can be assessed, Fink said. The BMI is also a noninvasive, inexpensive process, she said.
“Kids just have to take their shoes off and empty their pockets,” Fink said.
There are nine school districts, of the 54 in Alaska, that coordinate with the Department of Health and Social Services to keep tract of the prevalence of obesity, Fink said. On average, 33 percent of all students in the participating school districts are overweight or obese. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District comes in at a slightly higher rate — about 36 percent, she said.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports Alaska’s average aligns with the number of adolescents and adults nationwide who have excess body fat.
School districts can use long-term data to gauge the effectiveness of implemented programs aimed at combating obesity, Fink said.
“We want to maximize student health in anyway we can,” Magee said. “We have to start somewhere to address this.”
The school district also works on an individual level with students, Magee said. Referrals are made for students whom nurses determine are at an unhealthy weight, due to lack of nutrition and exercise, she said.
“It seems like the school district is making a concerted effort to provide healthier meals, within their capabilities,” Vadla said.
It can be difficult to change ingrained habits, and it helps if a student’s family is on board, Magee said.
Students are only getting one third of their calories at school, Fink said. How school districts address the issue of excess weight is only one part of the equation, she said. The entire community needs to be involved before “we will see any big changes.”
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.