“When you’re at that age and you are surrounded by sugars and sweets, I didn’t think anything of it,” said Zarea, now 15, who lives in Lithonia with her mother. “Little did I know that was killing me the most.”
Three years ago, a routine back-to-school doctor’s appointment turned tragic: Zarea was like thousands of other overweight children in Georgia at risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments.
However, with the help of a special camp launched by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for overweight children, Strong4Life, Zarea was able to turn her health around and is now healthier than ever at 140 pounds.
Thousands of children have made a similar turnaround in recent years in Georgia, a Deep South state that for years struggled to curb obesity rates. In 2007, about 1 million children were overweight or obese in Georgia; that number improved to 945,000 by 2011, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity rates have been on the decline nationally, too, as health officials try to curb what has become a public health crisis.
Officials at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta say parents’ attitudes continue to pose a barrier to improving childhood obesity in the state.
“What we really need to do is start educating people and making them aware,” said Mark Wulkan, surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Healthcare. “If you give someone a solution, and they don’t know they have a problem, they are not going to take it.”
Children’s has tried to reach parents through extensive advertising since 2011, such as fliers in doctors’ offices, billboards and ads on the ends of grocery carts that read “What goes in here, goes in them.” The health care system is focused on training all health care providers statewide on how to address childhood obesity with patients and their families. A total of 3,450 providers will have been trained by the end of this year.
“In the past, health care providers were afraid to bring it up because they don’t know how to do that in a sensitive way,” Wulkan said. “The idea is that kids see consistent messaging.”
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Public Health, is also trying to send kids consistent messaging about fitness and nutrition throughout Georgia’s public school system.
Last year, only 16 percent of Georgia’s children passed the state’s 5-part Fitnessgram test. About 43 percent of children were measured at an unhealthy weight, while 20 percent of students couldn’t pass any component of the test.
“It’s not like trying out for the Olympics or even trying out for the football team,” said Fitzgerald, who has taken on childhood obesity as her top health priority alongside Gov. Nathan Deal. “I mean, we are talking about basic physical health.”
The Georgia departments of public health and education will collaborate this fall for their “Power Up For 30” initiative, a voluntary program that encourages every elementary school in Georgia to include an additional 30 minutes of physical activity each day. This would be in addition to state-mandated physical education classes.
The initiative will share best practices from schools across the state and will highlight success stories such as Sope Creek Elementary School in Marietta, Ga.
For three years, the elementary school of nearly 1,200 students has carved out 30 more minutes each day for physical exercise without additional budget costs.
“I think the benefits have been so tremendous that any kind of challenge in getting it off the ground you can deal with,” said Sope Creek principal Martha Whalen, who has seen a 3 percent increase in children’s test scores.
Sope Creek teachers are encouraged to take “brain breaks” throughout the day to get students moving. Several studies show direct links between increased physical activity and improvements in children’s math, reading and spelling scores.
“You’re teaching them a healthy lifestyle that they will take with them for the rest of their life,” Whalen said. “We know that this is the time to capture their imaginations.”
Funded through a recent $1 million grant from the Coca-Cola Company, Fitzgerald hopes to train three people at every elementary school in the state over the next three years.
Marsha Davis, a member of the public health department’s Strategic Initiative on Childhood Obesity, said the state is gaining momentum in addressing childhood obesity through initiatives like “Power Up For 30.” She described Georgia as working in concentric circles, from the home to the school to the state.
“For something as complicated as obesity, it takes all those circles to work together to change,” said Davis, also the associate dean for outreach and engagement in the College of Public Health at the University Of Georgia. “We are not going to make a difference in Georgia if we are not having activities that are going on every level that affect the individual.”
Fitzgerald said increasing public and private statewide collaboration will ultimately put Georgia ahead of the national curve, particularly through the Georgia SHAPE initiative. Other Southern states, such as South Carolina, have reached out to Georgia to implement a similar program.
Recent SHAPE initiatives include working with the Department of Early Care and Learning to develop criteria on diet, physical activity and screen time in early care and education centers as well as helping Georgia hospitals become “baby-friendly” to improve breast-feeding rates. Most recently, Gov. Nathan Deal announced a new advisory council on childhood obesity, bringing together 16 stakeholders from health, education, business and nutrition.
“I really think the only way we can solve it is if it’s a statewide approach,” Fitzgerald said. “We need to go from worst to first in childhood obesity.”