Encouraging report on reducing childhood obesity trend

JOHNSON CITY – Researchers at East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health have completed an annual evaluation of Tennessee’s Coordinated School Health (CSH) program that shows the state has made strides toward reversing the trend of childhood obesity.

Coordinated School Health strives to improve health among the state’s school-aged youth through school system programs that emphasize healthy nutrition, physical activity and health education. The Tennessee Department of Education contracts with ETSU’s College of Public Health, the state’s only accredited college of public health, to evaluate the effectiveness of CSH and report the findings in a detailed executive summary for state legislators. The college also prepares an individualized annual report for each school system.

Dr. Deborah Slawson, an assistant professor in ETSU’s Department of Community Health and primary investigator for the evaluation, said the report “reveals encouraging signs even as the state continues to face significant challenges in terms of overall health.” Coordinated School Health efforts in the Volunteer State have been hailed as an example for how states can implement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s evidenced-based CSH program on a statewide level.

One of the major findings in this year’s evaluation is that Tennessee has seen a marked improvement in childhood obesity. Tennessee still has the third-highest rate of pediatric obesity in the nation, but the prevalence of children who are overweight or obese dropped from 40.9 percent in 2007-08 to 39 percent in 2008-09.

“From looking at rates from one year to the next, we can say that national rates of pediatric obesity are just now leveling out after a long upward trend, while Tennessee rates have actually decreased,” Slawson said. “It’s a good sign that Tennessee has made strides in the right direction.”

Dr. Rebecca Johns-Wommack, interim executive director for Tennessee’s Coordinated School Health program, agrees with Slawson. The results in the report should be an encouraging sign for all in the Volunteer State, Johns-Wommack said.

“Watching firsthand what is taking place in our state is very exciting,” Johns-Wommack said. “Tennessee students, their parents, school system staff and community members have benefited tremendously from having Coordinated School Health. When visitors walk into most Tennessee schools today, they observe many different kinds of physical activity opportunities for students and staff, healthier food served in cafeterias and vending machines, comprehensive health education classes, school health screenings and staff wellness programs.”

One possible contributor to lower obesity rates is the quality of food and drinks sold in Tennessee schools. The percentage of Tennessee schools that did not sell soda or high-calorie fruit juices increased from 27 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in 2008. The Volunteer State now ranks second nationally in that category and is used as a “best practice” for other states to follow, recognition that is largely due to the CSH initiative, Slawson said.

“We have gone from being in the bottom quartile of healthy foods available in schools to the top,” Slawson said. Slawson and eight colleagues from the College of Public Health spent months gathering and analyzing data from CSH schools to write the report, which clocked in at over 30 pages. Dr. Robert Pack, associate dean for the College of Public Health, and Dr. Xuefeng Liu, an assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics/Epidemiology, served as co-investigators. Other findings in the summary include:

  • More than 1 million screenings for health problems among schoolchildren were completed, and 116,650 referrals were made to health care professionals for care students may not have otherwise received without CSH funding.
  • Almost 29,000 students received early and periodic screening, diagnosis and treatment exams in school-based clinics as part of CSH.
  • An average of 21 community partnerships per school system were in place during the 2008-09 school year, a crucial facet in building support and sustainability for CSH initiatives.