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Childhood Obesity Rates Drop, But Disparities Remain

By Jill Colvin | December 16, 2011 7:45am
Childhood obesity rates have decreased 5.5 percent over the past 5 years, officials announced Thursday.
Childhood obesity rates have decreased 5.5 percent over the past 5 years, officials announced Thursday.
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Flickr/ Ed Yourdon

MANHATTAN — The number of obese children in public schools has shrunk dramatically over the past five years, according to new city numbers released Thursday — but wide racial disparities remain.

Between 2007 and 2011, the number of obese kids in kindergarten through eighth grade dropped by 5.5 percent, from 21.9 percent to 20.7 percent, according to a new health report by the Centers for Disease Control.

The sharpest decline was seen among kindergartens aged 5 and 6, whose obesity rate fell by 10 percent — numbers that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials hailed as groundbreaking as obesity rates have largely stagnated nationwide.

“This makes the greatest drop in childhood obesity in any large city in the country,” the mayor told reporters in the Bronx, saying the results will mean thousands of fewer kids on the road to life-threatening conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

“Obesity is really the only major public health program in the country that is growing, so this news is really quite astounding,” he said.

The mayor credited the drop to a number of city-wide efforts, including eliminating deep fried foods in schools, adding salad bars, switching to low-fat milk and mandating physical exercise.

To build on the city’s efforts, he announced new rules for snacks in all vending machines in city-owned buildings that including fat and calorie caps.

But the numbers also showed sobering racial and economic gaps.

While obesity rates for white children dropped by 12.5 percent and Asian kids saw a 7.6 decline, the obesity rate for Hispanic children was just 3.4 percent.

The results were even worse among black children, whose rate decreased by just 1.9 percent.

Much larger declines were also seen in kindergartners living in wealthier neighborhoods than those living in poor ones.

The mayor blamed the disparity mainly on economics and said the city has been working with stores across the city to try to stock healthier alternatives, like diet sodas and fresh produce.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said that, even with the decline, one in five kids is still obese, meaning there’s still a long way to go to ending the obesity epidemic in the city.

“We’re not even close to declaring victory," he said.

The numbers used by the city are based on the body mass index, which sets out ideal weights for kids of various heights.