Mississippi Initiatives to Address Childhood Obesity

Issue

Children in Mississippi suffer from an alarming rate of overweight that continues to rise. Overweight children miss significantly more school days and perform less well academically than normal weight children.  Risk factors for heart disease (such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure) and type 2 diabetes occur more frequently in overweight children and adolescents.  In the past ten years there has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in adolescents.  In addition to the health consequences, there are risks of developing potentially life-threatening psychological problems as well, such as depression, eating disorders, discrimination and stigmatization, negative self image, and passivity and withdrawal from peers.

Research indicates that overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.  Many times, parents of overweight children do not recognize or acknowledge that their child is overweight.

Prevalence of Obesity in Children in Mississippi

According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, Mississippi’s childhood obesity rates are the highest in the nation.  Recent data, however, indicate that childhood obesity rates may be leveling off in Mississippi (see Mississippi Bends the Curve).  The Mississippi data also reflect a troubling trend in that the racial disparities in childhood obesity rates are increasing. 

Perceptions of Mississippi Adults

About 95 percent of adult Mississippians think that childhood obesity is a serious problem in Mississippi, according to a recent survey conducted by researchers at the College of Health at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM).  In addition, Mississippi adults show stronger support for public policies to address the problem than adults nationwide.   For example, Mississippians were more favorable to the following:

  • To the government playing a significant role in reducing child obesity
  • To laws limiting vending machines in elementary, middle, and high schools
  • To a law requiring BMI assessments for children in schools
  • To a law requiring 30 minutes of daily physical activity in school

The Center for Mississippi Health Policy has prepared an Issue Brief summarizing the results of the survey.  More detailed information can be found in the Research Highlights or full Report from USM.

Mississippi Takes Action

In 2006, the Legislature instructed the Department of Education to develop a wellness curriculum for use by each school district and establish rules and regulations to be followed by the districts in implementing the curriculum.  The Legislature also mandated that the State Board of Education adopt regulations defining what products may be sold in vending machines on school campuses and when they can be sold (SB 2602, 2006 Regular Legislative Session).

The State Board of Education subsequently adopted rules and regulations that required schools to develop and implement wellness policies and restricted the products that could be sold in vending machines.  Beverage and snack regulations were designed to be phased in over two to three years.  Under the regulations, all full calorie, sugared carbonated soft drinks can no longer be sold to students in Mississippi schools during the school day.  The only beverages that can be sold include bottled water, low-fat or non-fat milk, and 100% fruit juices. No/low calorie beverages and light juices/sports drinks are allowed to be sold in high schools.  Standards for snack items vary by the type of snack product, and the Department of Education maintains a list of products that meet state standards.

In 2007, the Legislature passed the Mississippi Healthy Students Act (Mississippi Code of 1972 Annotated Section 37-13-134), which includes the following provisions:

  • mandates minimum requirements for health education and physical education in public schools:
    • For grades K – 8, 150 minutes per week of physical education and 45 minutes per week of health education, and
    • For grades 9 – 12, ½ Carnegie unit in physical education or physical activity for graduation.
  • requires local school wellness plans to promote increased physical activity, healthy eating habits, and abstinence from tobacco and illegal drugs;
  • designates an appropriation for a physical activity coordinator at the State Department of Education;
  • makes the statutory duties of local school health councils mandatory rather than permissive; and
  • directs the State Board of Education to adopt regulations that address healthy food & beverage choices, healthy food preparation, marketing of healthy food choices to students & staff, food preparation ingredients & products, minimum & maximum time allotments for lunch & breakfast periods, the availability of food items during lunch & breakfast periods, and methods to increase participation in the Child Nutrition School Breakfast & Lunch Programs.

The State Board of Education subsequently adopted Nutrition Standards and Rules and Regulations for Physical Education and Health Education.  The Department uses multiple strategies to support the implementation of the rules and regulations by Mississippi schools:

Additional information on these initiatives can be found through the website of the Office of Healthy Schools at http://www.healthyschoolsms.org.

Policy Evaluation

The Center for Mississippi Health Policy is directing a project to evaluate the impact of the Mississippi Healthy Students Act on childhood obesity in Mississippi.  The Center has released two reports summarizing key findings from the first two years of research, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Bower Foundation, evaluating the impact of the Mississippi Healthy Students Act.  The reports, Assessing the Impact of the Mississippi Healthy Students Act, present the results of studies conducted by three Mississippi universities – the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the University of Mississippi – examining the impact of recent policy changes.

Research results indicate considerable progress in implementation of school wellness policies but also point to areas where more work is needed. Evidence of schools making tremendous improvement in the nutritional quality of foods offered to students is confirmed by data from surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In CDC’s report, Mississippi was recognized as making the greatest strides among all surveyed states in removing unhealthy foods from its schools.

Summary

Childhood obesity is a critical health issue throughout the country and continues to have significant negative impacts in the State of Mississippi.  Mississippians recognize the seriousness of the problem and support public policies to address the problem.   Policymakers in Mississippi have enacted comprehensive policy changes in an effort to address the issue.  Early evidence indicates that these actions are having an impact in improving the health of school environments.