By Nate Hinkel
In 2003, when Arkansas became one of the first states to pass comprehensive legislation to combat childhood obesity, critics worried about negative social and emotional consequences for students.
Now that the decade-long experiment is entering its final year, the foundation that funds regular reviews of implementation of the legislation says Arkansas will be looked upon as a national blueprint in addressing unhealthy eating habits of youngsters and their families.
“We are incredibly proud of the evaluations of Act 1220 of 2003, which initially gave us confidence to invite other states to take a look at school policies that affect children’s healthy weight,” said Laura Leviton, Ph.D., a senior advisor at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that funds the assessments.
“The evaluation gave us a strong sense of what schools could feasibly do over time. And key insights for the country, such as documenting the changes in parents’ understanding of healthy weight, came directly out of the UAMS yearly reports.”
Obesity continues to be one of the most pressing health threats facing families and communities in Arkansas and in the nation. And with one in three children overweight or obese, the direct health care cost attributed to childhood obesity in the United States is estimated at $14 billion per year.
“Act 1220 encouraged schools and school districts to review their policies, practices and facilities, and to implement changes that will promote healthy lifestyles for students, staff and families,” said Martha Phillips, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAMS Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology.
Phillips and Jim Raczynski, Ph.D., dean of the College of Public Health, were the evaluation’s lead investigators. The legislation required annual body mass index (BMI) screenings for all public school students with the results reported to parents, restricted access to vending machines in public elementary schools, and disclosure of schools’ contracts with food and beverage companies.
Critics predicted BMI screenings would lead to an upswing in teasing and bullying among students. Despite the initial concerns, the data suggests that few adverse effects, if any, have occurred.
A College of Public Health research team designed a study to look at that concern. The team conducted telephone surveys of 6,417 parents and 1,042 students ages 14 and older who attend public schools in Arkansas. Their surveys were done before BMI testing began and then one and two years afterward and found that teasing did not increase after the changes mandated by Act 1220.
“We found no downside at the group level to student BMI assessments,” said Delia West, Ph.D., a researcher and psychologist at the College of Public Health. “And if the assessments and the law’s other provisions motivate kids to eat healthier foods and get more exercise or encourage parents to make changes at home, there is the upside of a major public health benefit.”
In the midst of the final year of data collection, Phillips said a key realization has been the role that support plays in following policy changes.
“We found that those implementing policies needed to feel like the people above them were supportive of the change,” Phillips said. “Support is the deal maker or deal breaker.”
Full reports for each year can be found online at www.uams.edu/coph/reports/#Obesity.