Nevada children on path to better health, but state needs to do more

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New data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that kids in Nevada are on a path to better health. The obesity rate among Nevada children ages 2 to 4 who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—better known as WIC—fell from 15 percent in 2010 to 11.6 percent in 2016.

Childhood obesity is linked to increased risk for a range of serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, asthma, and sleep apnea. Kids who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults.

Reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity helps ensure that kids will live long, healthy, and productive lives.

Yet think how much more we could be doing for our kids if the state actually invested in preventing early childhood obesity. Currently, that investment is exactly zero.

That’s right: Zero investment in preventing a disease that costs the United States more than $190 billion a year.

To be sure, the state has taken important actions, especially with regard to raising nutrition and physical activity standards in early childhood education settings. But it hasn’t approved funds to support providers in implementing these new standards.

Food deserts are a big problem in our state, and they contribute to obesity. Lacking access to full-service grocery stories that sell fresh produce and other nutritious foods, families are frequently left with few healthy food options.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill to attract grocery stores to food desert communities. Originally, the bill included $10 million to help finance this solution, but ultimately it included nothing. Instead, it offers grocery stores a tax credit for locating in an underserved community.

In recent years, communities across the country have been working to help all children grow up at a healthy weight by changing public policies, cultural norms, and industry practices to promote healthy eating, physical activity, and better options for children and families. Such efforts are having an effect.

Programs like WIC help, too. WIC is a federal program that provides healthy foods, nutrition education, and health care to seven million low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and young children nationwide, including 69,550 in Nevada.

In 2009, the government updated the package of foods and beverages covered by WIC to reflect current dietary guidelines. As a result, WIC offers more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lower-fat milk. Studies have shown that, following these changes, retailers began offering healthier food options for WIC participants. Research also found improvements in dietary outcomes among WIC participants.

Because of these and other initiatives, rates of childhood obesity have been declining in other places as well. According to the CDC study, obesity rates among WIC participants fell in 40 other states or territories, and at the national level. Nationally, the decline was significant for every racial and ethnic group studied: American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian/Pacific Islander, black, Hispanic, and white.

The decline in Nevada was one of the steepest among states, and it shows what is possible. But the truth is that we could do even better—an obesity rate of 11.6 percent in children only ages 2 to 4 is far too high.

At the federal level, extending WIC eligibility through a child’s sixth birthday would help a lot, and would better align with the school meals programs that are already in place.

But we could be doing more right here in Nevada too by putting money behind programs and policies that will help prevent obesity in our youngest children and set them on a path to a healthy life.

All our children deserve a healthy start. Let’s invest in a healthy start for everyone.

Denise Tanata
Denise Tanata is executive director of the Children's Advocacy Alliance.