Solutions Sought to Prince George's Obesity Problem

Gale Horton Gay | 8/22/2012, 4:55 p.m.

With a new school year about to start, the head of the Prince George's County Health Department encourages parents to focus not just on the three R's - reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic but also on nutrition and exercise.

Pamela B. Creekmur, health officer for the county, said obesity in children remains a growing problem and that 16 percent of children in the county described themselves as obese in a 2008 survey.

"With over 71 percent of our county restaurants being identified as 'fast-food' facilities, it's a big challenge to help our children adopt healthy food selection and healthy eating habits," said Creekmur, 52. "There is no simple solution to childhood obesity, but we can help by making healthy choices easier for our children to make."

She suggests parents advocate for the inclusion of healthier food items in school vending machines and encourage children to get involved in after-school sports or other physical activities instead of sedentary activities such as playing computer games or watching television.

Creekmur said she's very concerned because "obese children are more likely to become obese adults and adult obesity is associated with a number of serious preventable health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer."

Heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and diabetes are among the 10 leading causes of death for Prince George's County residents.

However, youth aren't the only ones whose obesity statistics concern Creekmur.

"The percentage of overweight or obese [adult] county residents is among the highest in the state," she said.

According to 2011Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data [BRFSS], 71.5 percent of adults in Prince George's County reported being overweight or obese, as compared to 69 percent in 2007. The 2011 BRFSS data also indicates that only 21.6 percent of county adults reported being at a healthy weight, a decrease from 28.6 percent [2008-2010 average].

"The problem is related to poor access to healthy foods [for example, inadequate consumption of fruit and vegetables], and low levels of physical activity," Creekmur said. It also indicates an increase in the percentage of people who reported that they didn't meet the Healthy People 2010 [a national effort to improve the health of Americans in 10-year increments] objective for moderate or vigorous physical activity, from 56.5 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2010.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], the percentage of census tracts in the county with food deserts stands at 13.6 percent, compared to 5.8 percent for Maryland and 10 percent for the nation. Creekmur said the USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number of residents have limited access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

As for what's being done to address the obesity issue in the county, Creekmur outlined five programs and initiatives that include the County's Health Improvement Plan [CHIP] for 2011- 2014, in which chronic disease prevention is a major priority. The newly formed Prince George's County Healthcare Action Coalition was recently awarded several state grants that focus on helping people with chronic conditions to better manage their health conditions, and promoting the adoption of local policies that would require selected restaurants to provide nutrition information on labels for their in-store menu items.

Another health department effort is a pilot project called "Healthy Heights," through which a vegetable and fruit garden was started at District Heights Elementary School.

Creekmur said more needs to be done, citing the promotion of local policy, systems and environmental changes that would reduce the incidence of chronic disease as well as helping individuals who have conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes better manage their health.

"Increasing access to healthier foods and improving the physical environment as a way to encourage greater physical activity among county residents are two key priorities for us this year," she said.