Childhood obesity drops in Chicago kindergarteners

But levels remain higher than national averages.

October 31, 2013

WBEZ/Monica Eng
Nachos and tater tots made up one of the most popular daily meals at CPS in 2009 when this photo was taken. But in recent years the district has increased its fruit and vegetable offerings to students and has seen obesity in its kindergarteners fall by nearly five percentage points.

As thousands of Chicago Public School kids sit anxiously waiting for trick or treat time, the city offers some good news and some bad news.

First the good news: New figures released today by the Chicago Department of Public Health suggest that childhood obesity among CPS kindergarteners has dropped by five percentage points, from 24 percent in 2003 to 19.1 percent in 2012.

Yay, right?

Well, don’t break out the king size Snickers yet. That figure still puts their obesity levels well above the national average (12 percent) for kids their age, and even the average (14 percent) for low-income kids.

Additionally, the latest figures don’t show any statistically significant improvements among older students who are measured at 6th and 9th grade.  Instead, those levels seem to be hitting a plateau, which mirrors overall obesity figures in the U.S. during the last decade.

Despite these qualifiers, the news was greeted with some optimism by local folks who have been working on this issue for years.

"I think the new numbers are promising,” said Adam Becker, who heads the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. “For decades we’ve seen major increases in the rates and so to see the rates going down, even in small increments at a time, is an indication that we are moving in the right direction.”

The improvement among CPS kindergarteners follows modest progress in 21 states across the country among very young children, and improvements in other big cities including New York and Los Angeles. But Chicago still posts higher childhood obesity numbers than those big cities for reasons researchers are not quite able to explain.

“I think we are starting to see what we all hope will be an ongoing national decline in obesity levels for all kids,” Becker said. “And this should just encourage us to step it up.” 

Most researchers agree that tripling of childhood obesity in the U.S. over the last 35 years was a result of several converging factors.

To combat them, the city has recently taken a multifaceted approach that has included adding more fruits and vegetables to school lunches and ditching the daily nachos. Other initiatives have involved offering grocers incentives to open in underserved neighborhoods, supporting fresh produce cart vendors, restoring recess to schools and finally gathering and calculating these CPS obesity figures to begin with.

“Obviously I’m really excited about seeing these numbers headed in the right direction,” said Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair. “But we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”