More than 30 percent of the students in most Capital Region school districts are overweight and the number rises to 40 percent or higher in Schenectady and several other districts, according to data amassed by the state Department of Health.
Weight problems are severe in the Capital Region, with about 20 percent of the kids in Fulton, Schoharie and Schenectady counties being considered not just overweight but obese. The data generally reflect the fact that people in rural and urban areas tend to be more overweight than people in suburban areas, with the Saratoga Springs, Niskayuna and Shenendehowa school districts having the lowest percentage of overweight students among medium to large school districts.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring said he wasn’t surprised by the results, which he said highlighted a fairly typical trend. In areas where poverty is a problem, like Schenectady, he said, “There are a lack of really good options for food purchases.”
By the numbers
Some Capital Region school districts and the percentage of their students who were reported overweight or obese from 2010 to 2012:
Saratoga Springs 24.2%
Source: State Department of Health
As a result, the convenient options for students and their parents are usually not the healthiest, with corner stores offering more processed and sugary items than at a grocery store. “They taste wonderful, but they’re not good for you,” Spring said.
Whether a student is overweight or obese is determined by their body mass index, a figure determined for young people by considering their age, sex, height and weight. If a person’s BMI puts them into the 85th percentile to 95th percentile for their age and gender, they are classified as overweight; in the 95th percentile and above, they are classified as obese.
Almost 18 percent of Schenectady’s students are overweight and almost 22 percent are classified as obese.
While acknowledging that the statistics were troubling, Spring noted that the BMI measurement is also a simplistic way of determining whether a student is healthy. Highlighting the imperfection of the system, he said, “I run and I swim every morning. I have done a number of marathons and triathalons, but I am obese [by the BMI standard].”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree with Spring’s analysis. They prefer to use BMI as a screening tool for obesity between ages 2 and 19, with additional assessment needed to determine if a young person has excess fat.
Nationally, the percentage of elementary-age children who are obese has risen from 7 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2010, with a similar increase seen among middle school and high school students.
Obesity can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, bone and joint problems, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
In Fulton County, the largest percentage of overweight students is in the former Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School, with 11.6 percent overweight and 21.1 percent obese. In the county’s largest district, the Gloversville Enlarged School District, almost 37 percent of the students have a weight problem, with 18.7 percent measured as obese.
In Montgomery County, the highest percentage of weight issues was in the Fort Plain Central School District, where 24.1 percent of students were obese and 18.8 percent were just overweight. In Saratoga County, the worst percentages were from the Mechanicville City School District and Corinth Central School District, with more than 42 percent of students at those schools being overweight or obese. In Schoharie County, at least 39 percent of kids were either overweight or obese in the Sharon Springs, Gilboa-Conesville and Schoharie central school districts.
Spring said schools should be teaching students lifestyle skills to ensure healthy living, like what constitutes a balanced diet, but said parents should not expect schools to whip kids into shape.
“[Gym class] is not a weight loss class. It is about teaching wellness and healthy options,” he said.
Healthy eating isn’t always easy in school, said Spring, with pizza being one of the most popular options in the cafeteria. The challenge is developing options that are nutritional and desirable. Kids often turn away fruits and vegetables, and when they are then forced onto the students’ trays, they get thrown away uneaten.
Spring is excited about a free breakfast program the district will be offering starting next school year. He said it might not make sense, but a nutritious and balanced meal to start children’s day keeps them healthy and fosters better eating habits later in the day.