How Harris County and Cy-Fair ISD are targeting childhood obesity

In Harris County, 47 percent of children were classified as overweight or obese in 2012, according to Growing Up in Houston, a study conducted by the United Way.
Posted on 06/22/2017
In Harris County, 47 percent of children were classified as overweight or obese in 2012, according to Growing Up in Houston, a study conducted by the United Way.

Childhood obesity could add billions to health care costs as the current generation of children becomes adults, but Harris County officials and Cy-Fair ISD are making efforts to reduce the number of cases in the area.

In Harris County, 47 percent of children were classified as overweight or obese in 2012, according to Growing Up in Houston, a study conducted by the United Way. The figure has prompted local entities to promote healthy eating and more active lifestyles at an early age in recent years as well as lobbying for legislation to combat high obesity rates.

"This is a societal and cultural issue that we've built over three decades," said Tim Schauer, a health care lobbyist for Cornerstone Government Affairs. "It will take a generation or two to move it back toward healthy living."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies a person as overweight if his or her body mass index-a calculation based on an individual's height and weight-is between the 85th and 95th percentiles. Those whose BMI is above the 95th percentile are considered obese.

The high obesity rate has led to a rise in children with adult diseases, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and joint pains, said Ann Barnes, chief medical officer at Legacy Community Health. Legacy is a network of full-service clinics across the Greater Houston area.

"Childhood obesity comes with an estimated price tag of $19,000 per child when comparing lifetime medical costs to those of a normal-weight child," Barnes said.

Weight gain causes
Nearly half of Cy-Fair children are classified as overweight or obese, according to Healthy Living Matters, a public-private collaboration created by Harris County Public Health. However, diverse income levels in the area create more factors that require different solutions, HCPH Executive Director Umair Shah said.

While poor food choices and sedentary behavior are some of the primary contributors to childhood obesity, in lower socio-economic areas, obesity has also been linked to food deserts, which are areas where a large number of residents are not within walking distance of a full-service grocery store, Barnes said.

When combined with a lack of transportation options, some parents in low-income areas are forced to purchase their groceries from gas stations and drug stores, Barnes said. These areas usually also feature a high density of fast-food restaurants, she said.

"If a neighborhood doesn't have easy access to a full-service grocery store or a farmers market, families have less access to foods that would promote healthy eating," she said.

While some Cy-Fair communities, such as Bridgeland and Towne Lake, are more affluent and have access to healthy food and safe play spaces, others-like parts of Jersey Village and neighborhoods off FM 529 and Hwy. 6-are considered food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This division can be observed in Cy-Fair ISD. The number of students considered economically disadvantaged by the Texas Education Agency at Cypress Ranch High School-which serves the Bridgeland area-is 13 percent. The rate jumps to 53 percent at Jersey Village High School, according to district data.

According to the USDA-which tracks overweight and obese children by Texas House district-rates of overweight children in Cy-Fair range from 30 percent up to 77 percent. Obesity rates are highest in Texas House districts 126 and 138, which cover the eastern and southern parts of CFISD. Rates are the lowest in District 132, which covers the western part of the school district.

Preventative measures

HCPH officials fear obesity could become generational as unhealthy children become obese adults, said Gwen Sims, director of nutrition and chronic disease prevention.

"It starts very early; the concerns are we might see this increase because unhealthy kids are at risk for becoming unhealthy adults," she said.

CFISD officials said they are working to solve the complex issues associated with obesity through nutritious meal planning and physical activity.

Eating habits are formed in the early stages of a child's life, according to Lisa Colbert, assistant director of food service at CFISD. During the school year, students are encouraged to try new, healthy foods, she said. Seven registered dietitians in the department set out to fuel students each school day with nutritious breakfast and lunch options at campus cafeterias.

Low-cost and free meals served in the district feature whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk; healthy options include entree salads.

"Research shows that children may need to try a food several times before they accept it, so parents shouldn't be discouraged if a child doesn't accept a food the first time it is offered," Colbert said. "This is why our department strives to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis."

Elementary science students can harvest fruits and vegetables in 15 gardens throughout the district before all elementary schools feature them on lunch menus with local organization Ready to Grow Gardens. Owner Stephanie Baker said she has been teaching curriculum to CFISD students since 2002.

A monthly Garden Fresh newsletter on the district's website also features recipes from the district chef.

In conjunction with the district's physical education department, Colbert said her colleagues issue monthly fitness calendars challenging families to incorporate movement into their daily routines. Activities include bike rides, jumping jacks, jogging, hopscotch and stair climbing. CFISD also hosts Family Fitness Nights with blender bikes-stationery devices that blend smoothies as students pedal.

Over the summer, CFISD's food service department will serve nutrient-rich meals to children 18 years and younger at no cost through the Summer Food Service Program, which is administered by the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Breakfast and lunch will be served every Monday through Thursday at various locations to cater to children who depend on school meals during the academic year.

"Students need good nutrition year-round so they can learn, grow and succeed in life," CFISD Food Services Director Darin Crawford said. "With nearly 2 million food-insecure children living in Texas, these healthy meals are vital to nourishing young Texans during the summer vacation."

Nonprofit Cy-Hope works in collaboration with the Houston Food Bank to feed CFISD children on the weekends throughout the year by sending home backpacks full of food with 1,500 children during the school year and offering pickup options at specific locations during the summer when school is not in session.

Meanwhile, Harris County is creating opportunities for active lifestyles through public-private partnerships like Healthy Living Matters and opening green space for parks and trails in Cy-Fair.

Precinct 4 opened the Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve in April in The Vintage with 80 acres of space for walking, biking, fishing and canoeing.

"You have to rely on people to take the initiative in their own families and households," Shah said. "(But) a family doesn't make the decision to build a park near their home."

Business initiatives

Businesses that encourage healthy lifestyles continue to open in Cy-Fair. The Little Gym of Cypress, soccer club FC Cypress, Hintze Dance Center, Lone Star Fit Body Boot Camp, Langham Creek Family YMCA and Life Time Fitness have opened, expanded or announced plans to open in Cy-Fair this year.

The Little Gym opened on Hwy. 290 in February with classes in developmental gymnastics, dance and sports skills for ages 4 months to 12 years. Director Melissa Parker said there is still a great need for health and fitness businesses in Cy-Fair-especially those that cater to children.

"We chose Cypress mainly because there was not really anything out here in the market like this, and it's a pretty booming part of the city," she said. "The main thing we do here is incorporate fun into everything we do, so they're learning and being active, but they're having a good time as well."

Parents and guardians can also help limit childhood obesity by creating a healthy eating and activity plan at home-especially as children begin the summer break, Shah said.

Colbert said families that eat together tend to have a higher intake of fruits, vegetables, protein and calcium and a lower intake of fried foods and soda. Dinner can be a simple combination of a protein, a grain, milk and fruit or vegetables, she said.

"We would encourage parents to make an effort to sit down as a family at least two to three times a week," she said. "Family meals give parents the opportunity to model good eating habits for children."