By Tracy Wright

Obesity is a major health problem nationally. Almost 40 percent of American adults and 17 percent of children are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Factors related to obesity, including hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, are among the leading health problems.

In Alachua County, approximately 25 percent of adults are obese and almost 12 percent of middle and high schoolers are obese, which is closely mirrored to statewide statistics that report that 27 percent of Florida residents are obese. This is cause for concern and there are strides being made but unfortunately recent research has shown that the condition adversely affects certain groups at a higher rate including Blacks and Hispanics as well as geographically, including central, northern and Panhandle counties in Florida.

“There have been over 80 identified contributors to obesity. Obesity is a complex problem with a lot of different causes. However, the major contributors of both adult and pediatric obesity are genetics, living in poverty, and being surrounded by an environment that promotes eating too much food and moving too little,” said Michelle Cardel, Ph.D., M.S., R.D., F.T.O.S., Assistant Professor in the University of Florida Department of Health Outcomes & Biomedical Informatics and Director of the Obesity Research Alliance in the UF College of Medicine.

Some key factors for the rise in obesity is diminished access to healthy food in underserved areas, decreased physical activity at all ages, as well as policies decreasing recess times and physical education in schools.

To address this public health crisis, the Florida Department of Health launched the Healthiest Weight Florida Initiative in 2013. Healthiest Weight Florida is a public-private collaboration bringing together state agencies, not for profit organizations, schools, businesses, and entire communities to help Alachua County’s children and adults make choices about healthy eating and active living. The initiative works closely with partners to leverage existing resources to maximize reach and impact. These partners include the schools, the business community, hospitals, non-governmental organizations, non-profit agencies, other federal, state, or local government agencies, and volunteer coalitions.

“This is such a big problem for all Americans, and public health cannot tackle this issue alone,” said Kourtney Gallivan Oliver, M.S., the Healthiest Weight/CHIP Coordinator at the Alachua County Health Department. “We need a collaboration with the medical community, schools, philanthropic organizations, local governments and many others to achieve our goals. Everyone has a role to play. Obesity is a result of the sum of our everyday small choices. Healthiest Weight is creating healthy places by focusing interventions in birthing facilities, early care and education centers, schools, worksites, communities, and health care settings.”

The impact of obesity is multi-faceted. Not only does it adversely affect physical health, but it can also affect mental health and stigmatization. When obesity begins to affect someone’s mental health, it often is not only a personal problem but also one that affects families and societies, Cardel said.

“Even if recent trends showing a plateau in the rate of increase in obesity continue, it is projected that there will be an additional 6 million cases of type 2 diabetes, 5 million cases of cardiovascular disease and 400,000 cases of cancer by 2030 attributable to obesity. Additionally, obesity can impact social and emotional health resulting in stigmatization, discrimination, low self-esteem, negative body image, and depression,” Cardel said.

Healthiest Weight Florida uses five key strategies to combat obesity in adults and children, influenced by the CDC’s initiatives of combating obesity in America. They include increasing opportunities for physical activity, making healthy food available, promoting health in the workplace, strengthening schools to be a focus of health promotion, and marketing healthy life choices via social media and special campaigns.

Healthiest Weight Florida works with individual schools and school districts to promote the best practices related to physical activity and nutrition for children. The goals are to increase the number of school districts recognized as ‘Healthy Districts’ and to increase the number of elementary schools participating in the Healthier US Schools Challenge: Smarter Lunchroom. However, not all health goals can be accomplished at school.

The Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has developed a Famer’s Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) that runs various farmer’s markets for individuals utilizing these food programs so that they can have access to a variety of fresh and nutritious food. Right here in Alachua County, individuals on WIC can visit the Alachua County Healthy Department on Fridays from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. to buy healthy and nutritious food for their families from a local farmer’s market.

Additional strategies launched in the school district as a partnership between the schools and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) include the farm to school program, which provides locally grown produce to schools and have helped to build community gardens at various schools across the county so that the school has immediate access to fresh food.

“We are beginning to see progress especially when it comes to childhood obesity. The latest Body Mass Index rates in public schools have declined and our collaborations have led to policy changes like water in every schoolroom lunch line and being a part of the United States Department of Agriculture Team Nutrition program,” Oliver said. “We have also instituted physical fitness programs like Talbot Elementary Morning Walking Club where parents and students can walk together before they get their day started. Healthier families equal healthier communities and it’s all of our collective responsibility.”

Although there is more work to be done, recent statistics show the efforts of Healthiest Weight Florida are yielding positive results. Alachua County has seen a decrease in the overweight population of adults with a drop from 63.3 percent in 2007 to 56.9 percent in 2016. The work is slow, but it is important to remember that programs like Healthiest Weight Florida are working and yielding positive results to make strides in reducing the obesity epidemic.