For Immediate Release
March 16, 2022
OBESITY AMONG ARKANSAS PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS ROSE TO RECORD LEVEL DURING COVID-19 PANDEMIC, ACHI REPORT SHOWS
LITTLE ROCK ― The percentage of Arkansas public school students with a body mass index measurement in the obese range increased to a record level in the 2020-21 school year — results that coincide with the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — according to a new ACHI report on childhood obesity.
The proportion of students designated as obese increased significantly in all grades that were measured for the 2020-21 school year. More than one in four ― 26% ― children had a BMI measurement classified as obese, the largest percentage since data collection began in 2003 and up from 22.9% the previous year.
The increase from the previous year is significantly greater than typical year-to-year increases. Over the three years between the 2016-17 school year and the 2019-20 school year, the percentage of students designated as obese increased from 22% to 22.9%, compared to the much larger one-year jump to 26% in the 2020-21 school year.
“Studies in other states have shown similar weight increases among children during the pandemic’s first wave,” said ACHI Director of Analytics Mike Motley. “This is likely a result of decreases in physical activity and reduced access to healthy school meals as schools switched to virtual learning during times of high COVID-19 transmission.”
Compared to the previous school year, the percentage of students in the obese range (BMI of 30 or greater) during the 2020-21 school year increased more among younger children than older children. However, a larger percentage of older students were designated as obese when compared to younger students, which is consistent with results from previous years.
“These findings underscore the need for families, educators, and policymakers to support Arkansas children in making healthy choices about nutrition and physical activity,” Motley said. “Overweight or obese children are more likely to be overweight or obese as adults, which can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and many other health problems. Obesity-related health problems are estimated to cost the United States’ health care system $190 billion each year.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas ranks 47th among states for obesity among adults, with 36% of the adult population designated as obese in 2020.
ACHI’s local area school and district student BMI dashboard details student weight classification percentages by public school district, school, and grade — information that has been used in the preparation of grant applications and other funding requests to secure support for a variety of obesity-related interventions in the state. Along with requiring BMI data for grant proposals, the Arkansas Department of Education has asked schools to include BMI information in their annual improvement plans.
Act 1220 of 2003, passed by the Arkansas 84th General Assembly, spearheaded initiatives to address obesity among school-age children statewide. Under this legislation, schools are required to collect students’ height and weight measurements and estimate a BMI percentile by age for each student.
ACHI is a nonpartisan, independent health policy center that serves as a catalyst for improving the health of all Arkansans through evidence-based research, public issue advocacy, and collaborative program development.