Among Pawtucket students, study finds 43 percent obese or overweight

Among Pawtucket students, study finds 43 percent obese or overweight

PAWTUCKET – School officials in the city say they’re concerned about the results of a first-of-its-kind study showing Pawtucket tied for third in the state for the highest number of students deemed obese or overweight.

Pawtucket is tied with Providence, both at 43 percent, and the two are behind only Little Compton, at 56 percent, and Central Falls, at 48 percent, according to the newly released three-year study by Rhode Island Kids Count and various health partners.

The 43 percent figure mirrors the average for the state’s core cities. It is 8 percent higher than the statewide average of 35 percent.

Children whose body mass index is in the 95th percentile for gender and age are considered to be obese, and children with a BMI between the 85th and 95th percentiles are considered to be overweight or at risk for obesity.

According to the report released this month, 17 percent of Pawtucket students ages 2-17 are considered overweight, while another 26 percent are deemed obese.

School Committee member Erin Dube, who serves as head of the district’s wellness committee, said, “The obesity numbers are definitely concerning.” As head of the subcommittee, she said she’s even more happy now that leaders previously chose to limit sugary beverages in the schools, including flavored milk and juice, a “good first step” in correcting the problem.

Dube said school officials will keep looking at school lunches, accepting even more responsibility because the schools serve students two meals each day.

“We really need to look at what food is there,” she said.

Karin Wetherill, co-director of the Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition, has called the data “a call to action, for sure.” She said Pawtucket and its wellness committee have “lots of good ideas and things going on that need support.”

What was so discouraging for her in the data, said Wetherill, is that this problem is preventable.

More younger children are seeing issues being overweight, she said, and problems early in life can lead to impacts as an adult.

According to the report, 26 percent of Rhode Island children ages 2-4 are overweight or obese, and 38 percent of children between ages 5-17 are overweight or obese.

School officials are blaming a number of factors, particularly children living a more sedentary lifestyle in front of screens and families not doing enough to eat and live well.

Wetherill said school communities need to be looking at “the whole 100 percent,” focusing even on students who are currently at healthy weights. Especially in a school setting, it’s important to support learning and teaching on health and practice those behaviors, she said, and to work with families.

Other Rhode Island communities with high numbers for overweight and obese students include Woonsocket, at 39 percent combined, Middletown, at 37 percent, East Providence, at 36 percent, Charlestown, at 36 percent, Newport, at 36 percent, North Providence, at 35 percent, Johnston, at 35 percent, and Narragansett, at 35 percent.

The Rhode Island Kids Count data on obesity was based on a first-of-its-kind three-year study working with the Rhode Island Department of Health, Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute, State Innovation Model and three health insurance plans to collect accurate data.

Recommendations to come out of the study include:

• Continuing to study and publicize the data on an annual basis.

• Asking the General Assembly to consider legislative options allowing an “opt-out” for the study rather than an “opt-in.”

• And having health providers use the data to provide referrals and guidance during doctor visits, among others.