Almost one in six children between the ages of 10 and 17 in Hawaii is obese, a significant increase from four years ago and fueling concerns about the health effects of COVID-19 restrictions and school closings on the health of the state’s youth.
The obesity rate among adolescents aged 10 to 17 years was 11.1% from 2018 to 2019. That number rose to 15.5% from 2019 to 2020, according to a new report released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving health and health equity in the United States. The data for 2020 was collected from June 2020 to January.
The rise in obesity puts Hawaii in 25th place in the nation, up from 44th place a few years ago.
The report was released amid heightened concerns locally and nationally about the impact of the pandemic on children’s health. A study published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children and adolescents have seen significant increases in weight gain across the country since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The study found that obesity rose 22% in 432,302 teenagers between the ages of 2 and 19, compared to 19% before the pandemic, among other things. Dr. Alyson Goodman, one of the study’s authors, described the study’s results as “significant and alarming”.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report stressed that the pandemic had exacerbated long-standing health inequalities among low-income and black youth, while warning that more data was needed to better analyze the impact of the pandemic on childhood obesity to be able to across the country.
Sandra Hassink, medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight, said in a foundation press release that the pandemic had exacerbated risk factors for childhood obesity.
“Economic stressors, food insecurity, less consistent access to healthy meals at school combined with more sedentary time, insomnia, reduced physical activity and social isolation have made it more difficult for families to stay healthy,” she said.
The rise in obesity is particularly alarming as it has been linked to breathing problems, high blood pressure, and diabetes, all of which increase the risk of developing serious COVID-19.
In Hawaii, disruption to daily routine and economic security has been particularly profound over the past year as government bans and restrictions and distance learning schools have been introduced. The state’s unemployment rate rose to 21.9% in April and stayed high throughout the year. Many unemployed families struggled to get unemployment insurance, sign up for Medicaid, and find additions to their food budgets as the economic downturn hit the state’s low-wage workers hardest.
“In general, I think it’s difficult to be healthy when the world is upside down,” said Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.
She said the financial burden on families is intertwined with obesity.
“Obesity and hunger across the developed world are two sides of the same coin because the cheapest foods people can afford are also the foods with the highest salt, fat, sugar, and nutritional content,” said Spoto.
She said many students also missed school meals last year, which was made healthier under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Child Act advocated by former First Lady Michelle Obama, which raised nutritional standards.
This year, all public school children will receive a free school lunch, a policy the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation urged all states to make permanent. Hawaii’s school children also returned to classrooms full time this school year, although COVID-19 cases skyrocketed with the Delta variant.
“One thing we have learned is that for most students, face-to-face learning is critical to their academic and social success, as well as their overall wellbeing,” Governor David Ige said in August as he outlined his plans for reopening schools .