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Report: 37 Percent of Hartford Preschoolers Are Overweight Or Obese

Mayor Promises Action To Address 'Alarming' Problem


November 28, 2012

HARTFORD A recent study of city preschoolers shows that more than one-third are overweight or obese, far exceeding national standards and confirming a trend that Mayor Pedro Segarra called "extremely alarming."

At a press conference Wednesday, Segarra said he ordered his communications staff to launch a public information campaign in both English and Spanish, including notices on public-access television announcing the study's findings to Hartford families and "the risk that is involved in childhood obesity."

The mayor said leaders across city departments will develop a plan that involves the schools and recreation and nutrition programs to reduce the obesity rate. He also suggested more exercise initiatives with the YMCA.

"This is our challenge now how to use all these resources," Segarra said. In a year, he expected to have a "benchmark" to begin measuring improvements.

Researchers at the UConn Center for Public Health and Health Policy conducted the weight surveillance study in May in partnership with the city's Department of Families, Children, Youth and Recreation.

Their sample size was 1,120 Hartford preschoolers at 35 randomly chosen child-care sites across the city, from the school-based Annie Fisher Montessori to the YWCA Growing Tree Early Learning Center on Garden Street.

They recorded the children's height and weight three times for accuracy, and found that 20 percent were obese and 17 percent were overweight. The obesity rate was about the same for boys and girls, but the prevalence was much higher in Latino children.

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed were black and 37 percent were Latino, mirroring the city's demographics.

Ann Ferris, director of the Center for Public Health and Health Policy, said poverty in Hartford is likely a major cause in the high obesity rate. Processed foods are typically the least expensive and children who live in unsafe neighborhoods are less likely to play outside after school.

One of the report's more troubling findings was that the group of 4- to 5-year-olds showed a higher obesity rate than those ages 3 to 4, Ferris said. Children should be losing their chubbiness as they grow longer limbs.

"Many of the children are not going through this normal, physiological change," Ferris said.

Under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 5 percent of preschoolers are expected to be obese, with 10 percent classified as overweight. The CDC considers childhood obesity a national crisis with immediate and long-term health effects, such as sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and bone and joint problems.

Overall, that means a shorter life expectancy for the average American compared to their parents' generation.

But Ferris and city officials said Wednesday that Hartford has an advantage in addressing obesity: 73 percent of young children are enrolled in city preschools, a higher-than-average rate they attributed to the state-funded school readiness program and magnet schools that accept preschoolers. That could lead to systemwide intervention, they said.

Community health advocates say early education is crucial and recommend that babies be breastfed and that parents restrict sweet and salty snacks, such as sugary cereal and artificially flavored crackers, in the developing months and years when children are forming their food habits. They also advise limiting TV time in favor of physical activity.

Jane Crowell, assistant director of Hartford's Office for Young Children, said many who work at the city preschools were "shocked" when told of the survey results. They believed most of the children were at an acceptable weight for their age.

"As a greater percentage of the preschool population becomes obese," the report stated, "both parents and teachers lose perspective on what is a healthy weight for a child.

"Earlier studies in Hartford note that parents of preschool children do not see obesity as an issue, especially when they compare the weight of their children with playmates who also have unhealthy weights."

In one extreme case, Crowell said Wednesday, a baby in one of the city's programs for infants was so obese last year, and his clothes were so tight, "it prevented him from moving." Employees cut off the boy's clothes and began regulating his diet not feeding him less, but giving him more nutritious food with fewer calories.

"He's moving around now," Crowell said.

At a forum on childhood obesity last week in Hartford, Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, noted the marketing machines of food and beverage companies, and argued that governments should take more aggressive action to curb the enormous health care costs associated with obesity.

Brownell called for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages a state tax of one penny per ounce, for example, could generate $145.8 million in annual tax revenue for Connecticut, he estimated

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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