Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2012, 31.8 percent – nearly one-in-three—children aged two to 19 were considered overweight or obese, 16.9 percent of them obese.
Although these rates have leveled in recent years, they are still exceptionally high according to Debra Kibbe, a senior research associate with the Georgia Health Policy Center (GHPC). She has worked on public policies and programs designed to counter childhood obesity both nationally and within the state for several years.
Get Healthy Together
Kibbe, before joining the GHPC in 2011, spent 13 years at a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit working on various global and domestic childhood obesity projects. One such project was a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded initiative to develop tools and training to assist nutritionists and counselors who work directly with mothers served by the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which resulted in the Get Healthy Together program.
The program was created as a response to an earlier study that concluded that WIC staff should model healthy behaviors and receive training on handling childhood obesity issues with their clients to be more effective.
Counseling presents challenges for WIC staff in offices across the country, says Kibbe. “You’re asking WIC staff in a very short window of time to counsel a mother about what could be a very difficult topic.
“For example, you are counseling moms who are white, Hispanic and black in the New Mexico WIC program. Their food cultures may be very different, so how you approach your counseling with each of those moms should be different. But that’s hard when you have only 10 minutes. And counseling about food is a challenge because it’s often a major source of conflict in a family. Food is very personal.”
Follow-up research conducted by Kibbe and her co-authors showed that the clinical tools developed for the Get Healthy Together program were effective in helping address some of these issues and improve the counseling practices in WIC clinics.
The second piece of the Get Healthy Together program was to instill self-confidence in WIC staff that they could model behaviors of personal health. During the 18-month study, WIC clinics used personal-health champions to support their staff’s personal health goals.
The initiative has extended beyond New Mexico. Additional funding allowed similar tools to be developed specific to the needs of pregnant mothers and those with infants and toddlers served by WIC. Many different states have also adopted the program, including some clinics in Georgia.
“These are public dollars, so the tools are publically available,” Kibbe says. “It was intended to be replicable, and it will continue.”
Kibbe co-authored the report, “Get Healthy Together: WIC Staff and Clients Moving Toward Healthier Lifestyles Revitalizing Quality Nutrition Services in WIC through a Focus on Childhood Overweight Prevention – Fit WIC 2,” which was published after the program’s completion in 2011.
Since joining the GHPC, Kibbe has participated in a post-study analysis and published two papers on the study. She has also given national presentations on the accomplishments of Get Healthy Together and has introduced the tools to the Georgia WIC program.
New Focus on Subpopulation Gains
Kibbe’s work in combatting childhood obesity hasn’t stopped with Get Healthy Together. While early childhood obesity levels are experiencing a slight decline, with most of this data coming from the WIC program, there are subpopulations aged five to 19 that continue experiencing growth in these rates.
“If you look at African American and Hispanic girls and boys, their overweight or obesity rates are actually still rising,” she says.
“The other trend that’s probably one of the greatest concerns to those of us working in the area of obesity is that the heaviest are getting heavier. The severely obese are gaining even more weight. We need programming in Georgia to help those kids who are the heaviest.”
Kibbe points to Georgia SHAPE, an initiative of the Governor’s office and the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). SHAPE aims to improve student health, nutrition and physical activity over the next decade in many settings through public-private partnerships. SHAPE will provide valuable data on obesity trends and resources and tools for schools, healthcare, communities and families. Working with DPH, Kibbe and GHPC Executive Director Karen Minyard are assisting in the development of an evaluation framework for Georgia SHAPE.
“There is a lot of passion in Georgia for addressing childhood obesity,” says Kibbe. “We’re looking forward to being able to think about how we’re using partnerships to actually further efforts to reduce childhood obesity throughout the state.
“For many of us work
ing in this area, it’s not about obesity, it’s about health. We want all Georgia kids to be healthier. It matters that we get them healthier than they are right now.”