Editorial: Schools need to educate kids to keep county slim

Here’s something to smile about on the way to the gym: Residents of San Luis Obispo County are among the slimmest folks in the nation, according to a recent Gallup survey.

Or more precisely, fewer of us are obese. Our obesity rate is 17.6 percent, compared to a national average of 26.5 percent.

Sadly, though, the picture isn’t so reassuring for the children of San Luis Obispo County.

Here’s a particularly sobering statistic: In a 2009 survey of 512 children enrolled in county preschools, 37 percent of these 3- and 4-year-olds were already overweight or obese. In a similar survey done in 2006, that figure was markedly lower: 28.8.

Keep in mind, this small sample doesn’t reflect the county’s population of children as a whole. But it’s nonetheless worrisome — and an indicator of how imperative it is that the county continue efforts to prevent childhood obesity.

Particularly as we struggle as a nation to bring health care costs under control, it’s become increasingly apparent that we must do a better job of preventing disease, rather than treating it after the fact. And studies show that one of the best ways to do that is by educating pregnant women and young children on healthy eating and fitness habits.

For that reason, we remain committed to the county’s efforts to prevent childhood obesity — including the once controversial decision to hire a health education specialist at $60,000 per year to focus on obesity-related issues.

A few years ago, some citizens scoffed at hiring an “obesity guru” during an economic crisis. To its credit, the Board of Supervisors didn’t waver. It funded the position for a year, with the expectation that county health officials would try to find grants to help fund the position in future years.

That’s exactly what happened; the county was awarded a California Endowment grant that covered the health educator’s salary for two years. That grant expires in October, however, and so far, the county hasn’t been able to find replacement revenue.

Ironically, the county’s lower overall obesity rate is a factor here. Often, grants are awarded to areas with the greatest need, and the county’s relatively low obesity rate has kicked it out of the running on at least a few occasions.

The county Public Health Department, however, remains committed to the position and to the program.

We’re glad to hear it, because it would be short-sighted to abandon the effort at this point.

It’s too soon to see measurable results in terms of higher scores on fitness tests or dramatically lower obesity rates. However, a pilot program at elementary schools in San Miguel and Oceano — two communities where childhood fitness scores have been especially low — should yield results over time.

Efforts include:

A mentorship program at San Miguel, where older students encourage younger ones to take part in fitness activities;

Monthly campus-wide “taste tests” of fresh fruits and vegetables at the two schools; students sample the foods, then vote on their favorites, which are added to cafeteria salad bars;

Encouraging individual classes to find healthy alternatives to candy and cupcakes as special treats or incentives;

Advocating for safe walking routes to and from school.

Ideally, we would like to see this program expanded, so that more youngsters could participate in the type of activities going on at Oceano and San Miguel schools.

In this horrific economy, however, we can’t look to government for that — we’ll be lucky to keep what’s already in place.

Yet something like a taste test seems like an ideal activity for a PTA or service club to sponsor.

We aren’t saying that a single serving of kiwi or broccoli will change children’s eating habits for life. But exposing kids to healthy alternatives to chips and soda — especially in a fun environment where they’re surrounded by friends — is an excellent way to open their eyes to the abundance of fresh produce our area has to offer.

And it’s efforts like those that could help keep San Luis Obispo County’s obesity rate under control for generations to come.