Illinois Receives “A” for Legislation, But Students’ Obesity Rates Don’t Make the Grade

February 02, 2007

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

CNN reported Thursday on the recent release of the University of Baltimore’s Obesity Report Card, an annual initiative by UB’s Merrick School of Business to grades states on their obesity prevention efforts. Grades are based primarily on obesity-related legislation that is introduced –- regardless of whether it passes. 

The study looks for the presence of legislation in the following areas: nutrition standards; vending machine usage; school-based BMI measurements; recess/physical education, obesity research, programs and education; and whether there are task forces, advisory councils and study committees.

This year, Illinois was one of six states to receive an “A” grade; the others cited were California, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee. Three states — Idaho, Utah and Wyoming — received failing grades for not having legislation to address childhood obesity.

Interestingly, those “failing” states had among the lowest obesity rates in the nation, with 26 percent, 21 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of 10- to 17-year-olds overweight or obese while the six “A” states had obesity rates that ranged from 28 percent to 36 percent, according to Kids Count data snapshot (a national and state-by-state effort the track the status of children in the United States, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation).

Following the release of the University of Baltimore’s Obesity Initiative, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office issued a press release that read in part: “Illinois received the high mark as a result of the Governor’s efforts to ban junk food in elementary and middle schools in the state.”

Certainly if we make strides in the fight against obesity, we should celebrate those successes. But I wonder if it is too early to begin celebrating. Consider this:

– 31 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds in Illinois are overweight or obese, and Illinois ranks 32 out of 50 states, according to Kids Count.

– About 80 percent of students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, have PE once a week or less. State law requires that Illinois students have PE daily, but many school districts apply to the Illinois State Board of Education to waive that requirement, according to a 2005 study (PDF) prepared for the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children.

– Successful obesity prevention programs, such as the CATCH program (Coordinated Approach to School Health) that Illinois launched in 2004, are available to only 0.3 percent of the more than 2 million students in Illinois.

In the fight against childhood obesity, is having legislation enough? I wonder if a better way to measure efforts to fight obesity would be to measure the percentage of students that have access to daily PE or daily recess, or who are served two or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables in their school cafeteria.

Illinois received an “A” from the University of Baltimore for having the legislation designed to reduce childhood obesity in place. I’m looking forward to the report card that gives Illinois an “A” because every student has the opportunity to participate in a program that promotes healthy eating and daily physical fitness.