Work To Reduce Chula Vista Students' Obesity Is Paying Off
Efforts to improve student health in Chula Vista elementary schools appear to be paying off. In 2010, a districtwide survey of students' height and weight found that 39.8 percent were overweight or obese.
Since then, the Chula Vista Elementary School District has revamped its wellness policy, taking steps that include promoting gym time, ending unhealthy treats during the school day and removing chocolate milk from the lunch menu.
When the district began its efforts, health professionals told Superintendent Francisco Escobedo not to expect instant results.
“Typically it’ll take five to 10 years to change the behaviors of society. Look at what happened in two years in Chula Vista,” Escobedo said at a Friday presentation.
In 2010, 25 district schools had obesity rates of 20 percent or higher. Half of the district's sixth graders were overweight, a quarter were obese. A second survey this fall showed those rates dropping at each grade level. Overall, about 3.2 percent fewer students were overweight or obese this year. Escobedo said that translates to about 800 more normal-weight students in the district.
The new wellness policy took effect across the district this past fall, but some changes, like taking chocolate milk out of cafeterias and encouraging schools to hold wellness fairs, started during the 2010-11 school year.
Rice Elementary was one of the first schools to pilot the new wellness policies last year, before they were mandatory for all schools.
“We’ve had a wellness fair, we’ve had cooking classes. We’ve talked about it. We’ve changed the way that we even do our fundraising,” said Principal Ernesto Villanueva. He said one of the most popular initiatives was sending home healthy recipes in the school newsletter.
The changes paid off. Five percent fewer Rice students were overweight or obese when the second survey was conducted this year. But Evita Sawyers, a Rice parent and PTA member, said trading popsicle and nacho fundraisers for fruit and vegetable boxes wasn't initially popular.
“Those things we got kind of a little backlash about," she said,"but when we're able to see the results, ok, look we made these changes but look at the results that we’ve gotten, it kind of pales in comparison.”
In addition to activities and lessons for students, Sawyers said parents are excited about Zumba classes on the campus that the whole family can come to after the school day.
Sawyers and her son Demetrius regularly get to school early to go to the new running club. In addition to their morning runs, Demetrius said he likes being able to eat grapes from the new fruit salad bar during lunch.
Increasing activity options and access to healthy foods are exactly the kinds of actions that researchers believe have led to some declines in childhood obesity rates in some large cities and states in recent years.
Between 2005 and 2010 California saw a 1.1 percent decline in childhood obesity rates for fifth, sixth and seventh graders - the grades for which the state department of education collects data.
"In two years to see that kind of decline is great," said James Marks, a senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which researches childhood obesity. He said the improvements are especially exciting in an area like Chula Vista, where there's a large Latino population and the county's highest instance of adult diabetes.
"If they can continue this, they should see kids be less likely to get diabetes," he said.