COLUMBIA — Missouri is the 12th-fattest state, and health professionals from across the state are concerned it’s a growing problem.
According to a study published this summer called the Trust for America’s Health report, about 26 percent of Missouri adults are obese. About 15 percent of children are obese, making the state 15th in youth obesity rates.
More than 100 representatives from around Missouri convened on the MU campus Tuesday and Wednesday for a childhood obesity summit. The event, which included presentations as well as group problem-solving sessions, was hosted by MU Extension. The summit was also sponsored by the Missouri Foundation for Health of St. Louis and KC Healthy Kids of Kansas City.
Attendees included representatives from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, varied school districts, state legislators and MU faculty members.
Speaker Cornelia Butler Flora, director of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, travels to various Midwest states sharing ideas on implementing healthier lifestyles.
“It’s not necessarily about educating children on what they should do but more about access and awareness,” she said. “If you change the environment in places like day cares and schools, the little things can make a big difference.”
Changing the environment means making sidewalks available, especially in poorer areas where Flora said the obesity rate is higher.
Others who attended the MU summit see obesity as a complex issue, involving physical and social aspects. A few local representatives included Ian Thomas, executive director of the PedNet Coalition; Stacia Reilly, a health educator at the Columbia/Boone County Health Department; and Arthur Mehrhoff, an academic coordinator for the Museum of Art and Archeology. Reilly and Mehrhoff acted as facilitators in idea exchanges and each addressed the relation between environment and obesity differently.
“What I am really trying to promote is getting children and adults to incorporate activity into their lifestyles,” Reilly said. “Instead of thinking, ‘I have to go to the gym and work out,’ for them to do simple things like walk to school instead of drive.”
Reilly promotes programs like “The Walking School Bus,” where a group of children, under adult supervision, walk to school instead of riding the bus. These programs advocate construction of sidewalks, so people can take advantage of activities like walking or biking.
Mehrhoff sees the issue as a larger, cultural phenomenon.
“If we have children who can’t take care of their basic needs like leading a healthy life, there’s no time to appreciate other things like art and archeology,” said Mehrhoff. “They can’t become more socially apt if their material needs are lacking.”
Those who work directly with children also came to learn. Robyn Leake from the Ralls County R2 School District wanted to know how to raise awareness among parents.
“We’re all talking and working on ways to better inform the parents of children in our schools on childhood obesity,” she said. “We want them to realize it is a problem.”
The end goal of MU summit involves sending participants back to their communities with new ideas to create healthier and more “active-friendly” environments, said Vera Massey, a MU Nutrition and Health Specialist.
“What we’ve tried to do here is bring together key leaders to exchange ideas and identify projects for their communities,” she said. “We’re encouraging people to look beyond just exercise and nutrition because in the end, we want all children to be the best they can be. It’s obesity prevention in a more holistic way.”