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Mississippi Has Highest Rate of Childhood Obesity in US


Children at this Mississippi school are getting better lunch choices as part of an effort to combat childhood obesity in the state.

Children at this Mississippi school are getting better lunch choices as part of an effort to combat childhood obesity in the state.

Residents of Mississippi favor pork barbecue, fried catfish, buttery biscuits and gravy and tamales. Generations of eating calorie-laden foods have lead to Mississippi's designation as having the fattest kids in the nation. But the southern state, where 40 percent of the children are overweight or obese, is fighting that ranking.

A seventh grader eating a salad - from a school cafeteria. Others picking fresh fruit.

Gym class. 30 minutes every day. These are the changes Mississippi is making after being named number one in childhood obesity. And, the students are learning why better choices are necessary.

"To stay healthy and do things, it helps you later on in life, when you are older," said 13-year-old Jofunta Smith.

Mississippi wants to promote more students like Victoria Parrish - this 13 year-old lost 20 kilograms by eating better and playing softball. "My change in heart (came) I guess because I felt it was time to change myself," she said.

And, her school - Byhalia Middle - changed itself.

Five years ago, this is what the cafeteria used to serve. White bread, canned fruit, lots of sauces. Today, it's whole grains, one percent milk, fresh fruit and vegetables."

Ninety-Five percent of the school is on free or reduced lunches. But the subsidies are too low to buy more fresh produce. So Byhalia gets some vegetables from the high school greenhouse.

Manager Joyce Shaw prohibits sodas in her cafeteria and offers fresh fruit smoothies instead. She hopes school habits don't end here. "Maybe when they go to the grocery store with their parents, they'll let them know: 'Mom, we had kiwi at school today, let's buy some of those.' I'm hoping they will take it home and start eating nutritionally at home," she said.

That's difficult for a state like Mississippi, where high calorie foods have been the tradition for generations. Plus, some citizens live in areas called "food deserts," where traditional grocery stores are miles away. This is the only store within walking distance for Bobbie McDaniel. And it offers few fresh vegetables. "You can't get them if you don't raise them in your garden. You can't get them here."

School nurse Emmily Hurdle calculates BMI--Body Mass Index. Then, she counsels students on why it should be lower. "You always think of high blood pressure, diabetes, and these are things we don't ever want to have to treat. It would be so much better if we could prevent them," she said.

In addition to counting calories, Mississippi law recently mandated 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Coach Henry Hood says he's fighting a new generation that doesn't know how to play. "When I was a child, we had to go out and play. We didn't have the video games, and the wii (video game) sets that we stayed inside and played with. So our recess outlet was playing and hunting and fishing, and doing those things," he said.

Nurse Hurdle is shared between eight schools, in her quest of obesity prevention. "I could teach it 24 hours a day, seven days a week and I still would not get through in a school year what I needed to get done," she said.

She has a few more years, before these kids graduate from planned lunch menus and scheduled exercise. And before they get the chance to grow into overweight adults, which statistics show 4 out of 5 could become.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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