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WVU collaboration strives to overcome childhood obesity

Staff Writer
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Students at Jennings Randolph Elementary School in Elkins practice yoga in the classroom in fall 2018, led by Tracey Valach, a youth health educator with WVU Extension Service in Randolph County.
WVU Extension Photo/Tracey Valach

WVU Today

MORGANTOWN — A group of West Virginia University researchers is working to change the narrative on childhood obesity and physical inactivity in the Mountain State.

The West Virginia Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities Project efforts in multiple West Virginia counties is attempting to turn the tide on childhood obesity numbers, as recently reported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

According to the RWJ Foundation’s latest State of Childhood Obesity report, 19.6 percent of children in West Virginia are obese, the seventh-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country.

The national average is 15.5 percent.

“The CARDIAC Project’s primary goals are to provide health risk factor identification in the school setting for all WV kindergarten, second graders and fifth graders that can make them, their parents and their primary care physicians aware of any risk factors identified and to provide education and advocacy that will engage and empower them to take action for their health,” Eloise Elliott, Ware Distinguished Professor and co-director of the CARDIAC Project said.

WVU Extension Health Educators function as community leaders in schools to help implement the screening process and deliver the school-based education component.  The WV CARDIAC Project is administered through a partnership between the WVU School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences. The CPASS Center for ActiveWV oversees project implementation and evaluation.

Since 1998, the WV CARDIAC Project has worked to identify children with cardiovascular health risk factors and offer novel interventional strategies. Until 2017, the school-based project was funded through the West Virginia State Legislature and has reached more than 245,000 West Virginian children in all West Virginian counties.

Now supported by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, the project was implemented in 20 West Virginia counties during the 2019-20 school year.

During 2019-2020, Barbour, Calhoun, Clay, Fayette, Lincoln, Marion, Marshall, Mason, McDowell, Mercer, Mineral, Mingo, Monroe, Morgan, Pocahontas, Randolph, Roane, Wayne, Wetzel and Wirt counties participated, with a total of 8,763 children screened (2,829 fifth graders, 3,143 second graders, and 2,791 kindergarteners).

Kindergarten, second and fifth grade students in the selected counties were screened for their weight and height to calculate their Body Mass Index and for acanthosis nigricans, a visual rash-like indicator on the neck that can be a sign of high insulin levels or risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. With an additional parental consent, fifth graders were screened for blood pressure and healthy lifestyle behaviors.

These screenings found 31.4 percent of kindergarteners, 37.8 percent of second graders and 46.9 percent of fifth graders were overweight or obese. In addition, 3.8 percent of kindergarteners, 5.2 percent of second graders and 7.5 percent of fifth graders showed evidence of pre-diabetes (positive AN screening).

Of those participating fifth graders agreeing to additional screening for blood pressure and healthy lifestyle behaviors, 25.6 percent had high blood pressure.

Regarding healthy lifestyle behaviors, 86.9 percent of parents reported their children did not get daily moderate-or greater physical activity and 87.1 percent of parents reported their children did not eat five or more servings of fruits or vegetables daily.

In counties where the WV CARDIAC Project is implemented, there are available interventions that focus on establishing healthy lifestyles and developing a culture of health. One of these interventions, Active Academics, is a resource for teachers to integrate physical activity into the normal class curriculum throughout the school day.

Another intervention, Health in a SNAP, offered in partnership with the WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program, is a resource that educates the public about making healthy food choices. The effort serves as a collection of programs that includes cooking classes for adults, healthy life skills classes for teens, individualized dietary counseling from a licensed, registered dietitian, farmer’s market or produce box/voucher and home gardening education.

Those interested in participating in the Health in a SNAP program should contact Kristin McCartney at 304-356-1310 or Kristin.mccartney@mail.wvu.edu.

The WV CARDIAC Project continues for the 2020-2021 school year and will begin outreach to select counties for participation. For more information, contact Kaitlyn Shaffer, WV CARDIAC project manager at 304-293-9355 or wvcardiacproject@mail.wvu.edu.