JACKSON — High fives to our healthy Wyoming kids.
According to a report released Oct. 3 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Wyoming’s children are some of the thinnest in the country.
In 2017 and 2018, the years covered in the report, just 11.8% of kids in the state qualified as obese, below the national rate of 15.3%. Wyoming has the 10th lowest obesity rate in the nation, following mostly Western states. Utah has the lowest at 8.7%, while Mississippi has the highest rate at 25.4%.
The report cites mixed reviews about the country as whole. The 2016 national rate was 16.1%, meaning children were slightly trimmer in the past two years.
But it also found racial and economic disparities: Black and Hispanic youth had rates — 22% and 19.9%, respectively — significantly higher than white children.
Children living below the federal poverty line were far more likely to be obese (21.9%) than those whose families earn at least 400% of the poverty level (9.4%), the report found.
“These new data show that this challenge touches the lives of far too many children in this country,” foundation President Dr. Richard Bessler said in a press release, “and that Black and Hispanic youth are still at greater risk than their White and Asian peers.”
The report didn’t go into why Wyoming and other Western states have lower obesity rates than other parts of the country, but U.S. Census Bureau data offer some clues. July 2018 population estimates show that 92.6% of Wyoming’s population is white, and 88.9% of Wyomingites live above the federal poverty line, so a large majority of the state’s residents fit into demographics that are less likely to be obese.
Drinking water and health education are two recommendations the report makes to encourage healthy behavior in children, but it especially focused on nutrition and pointed to federal programs that help stave off obesity and support proper nutrition.
In particular, it highlighted the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, which provides assistance for women with children up to age 5 who are “at nutritional risk.”
Women who qualify for WIC can go to the Teton County Public Health Department for nutrition counseling and advice, while families with Medicaid and private insurance can access similar services at St. John’s Medical Center.
“Between the dietician at Public Health and myself, we basically cover everyone,” said Sarah Peterson, the dietician at St. John’s.
Peterson said counseling includes ways to encourage kids to eat fruits and vegetables, like adding them to kids’ favorite foods (think steamed broccoli atop macaroni and cheese) or kids veggies first when they are hungry.
She also said nutrition counselors provide age-specific recommendations for portions of each food group.
“The ratios are roughly the same no matter the age,” she said. “You want to make sure that half your plate is fruits and vegetables.”
A somewhat recent change in school lunches helps kids eat their fruits and vegetables when they aren’t at home. The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kid Act stipulates that to qualify for federal funding, schools must offer fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals.
For some counties in Wyoming, that might be all the students receive, but in Jackson Hole, community members and schools bring more whole foods into school meals.
Wes Clarke, food service director for the Teton County School District, said that each year a few people buy animals at the 4-H livestock auctions during the Teton County Fair and donate them to his program.
And community gardens at Wilson and Alta elementary schools, Jackson Hole Middle School and Summit Innovations School help kids feel connected to their food, he said.
Clarke said if kids are involved in growing the food, they are more likely to eat it.
Dietician Therese Metherell at Peak Nutrition agreed and said that the ethos extends beyond the garden.
“The more involved kids are in the shopping and the cooking,” she said, “the more they will be involved in the eating of the food.”