Our View: Skinniest county faces weighty issue
August 10, 2013
Routt County has a lot to celebrate, including the fact that it is the skinniest county in the skinniest state, as documented in last Sunday's Steamboat Pilot & Today cover story, "Tipping the Scales." The article focused on the unique challenges caused by weight in America by comparing Routt County with Holmes County, Miss., which has the highest occurrence of obesity in the nation's most obese state.
In reading about the differences between the two counties, it would be easy to focus only on the challenges of life in Holmes County where unemployment is high, wages are low, access to fresh foods and vegetables is limited and a large portion of the population struggles with their weight. It would be easy to think we have it made here in Routt County — and in many ways we do — but in doing so, we ignore some underlying issues that demand the community's attention.
On the surface, the majority of the local population seems super fit, devoted to living healthy lifestyles and enjoying the endless opportunities for outdoor recreation. But surprisingly, even though obesity rates are low in Routt County, those numbers are on the rise, especially among elementary-aged children.
According to Barb Parnell with LiveWell Northwest Colorado, children in Routt County are growing obese by 1 percentage point per year. Since 2009, Parnell has been collecting height and weight data at the county's schools, and she has seen the percentage of children weighing in as obese growing from 16.4 percent in 2009 to 19.4 percent this past year. The local trend is consistent with statewide statistics, which show Colorado dropping from third in the nation in the category of childhood obesity to 23rd.
Health officials, like Parnell, are working hard to combat this unhealthy trend, and it appears as if community partners, like local school districts, are getting on the bandwagon. One tool being used in several schools is the "Go, Slow, Whoa" program, a food-labeling system to help make young people aware of their food choices.
Food insecurity is another factor that could be contributing to the slow rise in childhood obesity among the county's children. Food insecurity is generally defined as "access by all to sufficient food for an active, healthy life." Again, at first glance, it would appear that Routt County's higher median income level would make food insecurity a non-issue, but the county's higher than average food costs can create a budget crunch for some local families, forcing them to purchase less expensive, less healthy food at the grocery store.
According to a community food assessment initiated by LiveWell Northwest Colorado, the average cost of a basic "thrifty food plan" in Routt County is 34.3 percent higher than the national average, and the average cost of a meal in the county is $3.12 versus the state average of $2.43. In a nutshell, healthy foods are available but not affordable for all residents.
Living a healthy lifestyle takes work, and in particular, children look to the adults in their lives to set the example. Parents are on the front line of this obesity battle, and it's up to moms and dads throughout the county to teach their children how to eat right and exercise. Parnell advises parents to work with their children to increase intake of fruits and vegetables to five servings per day and to eliminate all sugar-sweetened beverages from their youngsters' diets, including vitamin water and Gatorade. She also recommends promoting two hours or less of TV or computer screen time and one hour or more of physical activity. These are simple steps to take but vitally important to the future of a generation of youngsters who are growing up with obesity rates that outpace adults.
Luckily for Routt County, there are groups like Livewell Northwest at work in our communities. It's crucial that local health officials and schools continue to work together to monitor childhood obesity rates and put into practice programs to fight this trend. And in turn, local families must support these efforts by encouraging healthy lifestyle habits on the home front. The Steamboat Pilot & Today would love to report that Routt County is leading the state and the nation in efforts to lower childhood obesity rates.