Health Care

Vermont’s childhood obesity now highest in New England

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A state nutritionist says it’s harder in Vermont to get to the supermarket or a place with healthy fresh food. File photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

Vermont’s childhood obesity rate crept up once again this year, making it the top state in childhood obesity in New England, new research shows.

More than 15% of Vermont’s children age 10 to 17 are obese, according to data from the State of Childhood Obesity, a research project from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That’s compared to less than 12% two years before.

“It’s culture — not just our individual behavior,” said Susan Kamp, director of physical activity and nutrition at the Vermont Department of Health. 

While Vermont leads the region, the state comes in below the national average of 15.3%. Mississippi, with a childhood obesity rate of 25.4%, leads the country, followed by West Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky, which all have rates over 20%. Vermont ranks nationally with the 20th highest rate of childhood obesity. 

“All the states are going in the same direction,” said Paul Meddaugh, an epidemiologist with the Department of Health. “Vermont’s is just increasing in a magnitude lower than the rest of the country.”

Kamp said society has moved away from active jobs and lifestyles and shifted toward cheap, convenient food options that are often higher in calories and fat. These factors are considered to contribute to rising obesity rates nationwide, but, according to Kamp, they are exacerbated in some ways in Vermont.

Finding and affording healthy food options is a major barrier in Vermont, she said.

“Here it’s harder to get to the supermarket or a place with healthy fresh food or even frozen food,” she said. “Even if your local Quickstop has frozen food, they’re not going to have frozen peas.”

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Vermonters spend $4,694 per person each year on food for the home, the highest amount in the nation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Vermont residents also spend more on eating out than the rest of the nation.

National data shows that low-income families spend a higher share of their income on food than high-income families. State level data showing food spending by income bracket is not available. 

The Vermont Department of Health has been working with low-income families to educate them on how to choose and prepare healthier meals, Kamp said. Eighty-three percent of schools in Vermont also have a “farm-to-school” program that connects schools with local farms.

But access to food is still a major barrier, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Food deserts,” areas dry of grocery stores and other food options, abound in rural areas far from supermarkets and urban areas without public transportation or walkable streets.

The USDA found 30,226 Vermonters are living in food deserts, defined as low-income Census tracts at least one mile away from the store in urban areas or 10 miles in rural ones. Meddaugh estimates the total as even higher: he found that 30% of Vermont towns with high household poverty are more than 15 minutes from a grocery store.

Even if a kid’s diet is balanced, Vermont’s car-dependent culture can make it hard to keep them active, Kamp said.

“Growing up, we walked to school,” she said. “Now a lot of schools have been built outside of town because land is cheaper, so if you’re in the center of the community, you have to take a bus.”

Many schools now plan a week in fall for kids to walk or bike to schools with adults volunteering to supervise, Kamp said. “It helps shine a light on the fact that there’s other ways to get to school,” she said.

The Health Department encourages children and adults to integrate small exercise into their lifestyle wherever they can, she said. 

“Even if you walk for 30 minutes a day, that’s a physical activity,” she said. “Park your car a little further away from work. Get the family out for a walk after dinner.”

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Erin Petenko

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