Lower childhood obesity rates in N.J. linked to nutrition program

New Jersey saw a decline in obesity among young children in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. (Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash)

New Jersey saw a decline in obesity among young children in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. (Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

Obesity has declined significantly in New Jersey among young children enrolled in a federal nutrition program for low-income families, outpacing the downward trend in many states and resulting in the lowest rate for that specific group in nearly two decades, according to a new report.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released findings Thursday that show 15% of Garden State children age 2 to 4 years in the supplemental food initiative were considered obese in 2016, down from a high of 19.6% in 2008. The report was based on new data also made public Thursday by the federal Centers for Disease Control. (The foundation provides monetary support to NJ Spotlight.)

New Jersey is among 41 states and territories that saw a decline in obesity among young children in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which helps pregnant women and families with limited incomes get vouchers for healthy food, breastfeeding help and other social services; the decline was consistent across all racial groups, according to the report. The program now covers more than 135,000 Garden State women — and children through age 5.

Researchers at the Princeton-based foundation suggested the national trend might reflect changes made in 2009 that prompted WIC to cover more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lower-fat milk; studies show these revisions led to a healthier diet among the country’s 6.3 million participants. States have also upgraded nutrition standards in an effort to reduce obesity, which increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and many other chronic conditions.

“These widespread declines in obesity rates are encouraging,” said Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at RWJF. “They show real progress in our efforts to help all children grow up at a healthy weight. Changes made to WIC in the last decade may be having a real impact — we should make sure it’s reaching everyone who’s eligible.”

Overall, nationwide obesity rates have escalated significantly over the past four-plus decades for both youth and adults, according to other federal data compiled by the foundation, although the rise has leveled off in recent years. As of 2016, 18.5% of the country’s children age 2 to 19 were found to be obese, while nearly 40% of adults fit this category. For the subset of 2- to 4-year-olds in WIC, the obesity rate was 13.9% nationwide.

Healthy habits

Based on their review of the new data, RWJF urged Congress to increase funding for WIC and expand eligibility, modernize the process for participants, and ensure the program continues to play a role in other public health programs, like lead screening. The foundation also encourages parents, caregivers and those in public health to consult the first-ever beverage guidelines for infants and children, which it released in October. The group notes that youngsters who adopt healthy habits are less likely to suffer health problems over time.

New Jersey’s Department of Health is also working to encourage healthy eating among WIC participants and other children and families. A federally funded program enables DOH and local partners to provide nutrition counseling in schools and other community sites. The department also works with community groups to expand access to fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods considered “food deserts” because they lack healthy options.

The health department is also beefing up efforts to marry oral health and nutrition education. It supports dental clinicians in outreach efforts at schools, community events and WIC sites. And an initiative launched earlier this year to provide nutrition counseling to low-income families at three federally funded health clinics was expanded this month by four additional health centers; a fifth will be added in 2020, the department said.

As part of its State of Childhood Obesity project, RWJF’s review of previous data on all children between age 10 and 17 found New Jersey ranked No. 22 nationwide, and the age group had a 15% obesity rate. When considering the new WIC numbers for 2- to 4-year-olds alone, the foundation found that same percentage places the Garden State at No. 15 nationwide. At its peak in 2008, New Jersey’s obesity rate for these WIC youngsters, 19.6%, was the third highest nationwide.

In the new report on young WIC participants, New York ranks No. 27 nationwide, with a 13.7% obesity rate among this group. Pennsylvania comes in at No. 39, at 12.2%; Maryland, with 15.6%, is No. 9; and Delaware ranks at No. 6 with 16.2%.

While one of every two infants in the United States benefits from WIC, participation declines as children age. But the WIC program remains a “reliable sample over time,” explained RWJF’s Katherine Hempstead, and the initiative itself illustrates the positive impact public policy can have on population health.

The new data also raises interesting questions about the larger obesity issue, Hempstead said. “Maybe the broader population of kids is like this too,” with declining obesity rates, she added. “To what extent is it a good sign about the larger trends in obesity?

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