A recent report of alarming childhood obesity rates at East End school districts has raised questions about the public release of what some assumed were private health records.
But with all the talk of whether the numbers are misleading, or should have been released at all, a larger issue has seemingly been overlooked.
Despite the best efforts of the state and individual districts, locally, the statewide trend of financial hardship begetting childhood obesity is clearly evident, according to an analysis of State Department of Health and Department of Education data. They show that districts with higher rates of participation in the free and reduced-price lunch programs—a simple measurement of the number of low-income students in a district—also have higher rates of obesity.
The Student Weight Status Category Reporting System is a yearly study compiled by the State Department of Health since 2007, commissioned to understand the causes of childhood obesity and eventually eradicate it.
The state requires kindergarten students, as well as those in grades two, four, seven and 10, to have a student health certificate filled out by either a school nurse or private physician. The cross-section of students being reported as overweight or obese is then relayed to the state, devoid of any identifying information, just general summaries such as gender and age.
Further adding a wrinkle in the accuracy of the study is the fact that while the exams are necessary, parents are allowed to opt out of having their children’s information forwarded to the department. About 2 percent of parents opt out, according to Department of Health officials.
Two weeks ago, when a media report ranked the 15 most obese schools in Suffolk County, school administrators of local districts were outraged by the misleading nature of the statistics and what they saw as a public shaming based on a study with an outcome out of their control.
In Bridgehampton, for example, the 15 obese children calculated were out of a 56-student sample size—not the approximately 160 total students in the school—but the district was labeled with a 27.3-percent obesity rate, well above the state average of 17.6 percent, ranking the district the seventh most obese in the county.
If one student here or there went unreported to the Department of Health, the numbers would be completely skewed, argued Bridgehampton Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre. “The data used [were] not being used in the way that it was intended,” she said in an email. “It is articles like [that] that make parents uneasy when it comes to the state having information on their children.”
Dr. Favre, and every other administrator contacted for the story, went on to say that ranking schools with such a gap in enrollment numbers is unfair, and the lengths that the districts’ go to in an effort to ensure a healthy lifestyle and diet for their students are extensive.
“There is no reflection on the school or our families, as I do not believe the statistics are being fairly reported,” she said. “It is a reflection on the unfair use of data, in ways it was not designed to be used. I don’t believe it is a true reflection of our student population.”
Other districts mentioned were the Riverhead Central School District, ranked 10th with 24.7 percent obese, and Springs Union Free School District, ranked 12th with 22.9 percent obese.
By comparison, East End schools that weren’t mentioned include Montauk, with a 21.3 percent obesity rate; Hampton Bays, 20.4 percent; East Hampton, 16.8 percent; Southampton, 14.7 percent; East Quogue, 14.1 percent; and Westhampton Beach, 12.6 percent.
But regardless of whether or not the numbers should have been published, regardless of whether or not they are misleading, the Department of Health itself acknowledges that the numbers taken as a whole suggest a “complex mix of social, economic, environmental and individual factors” contributing to childhood obesity, with economic factors being the most easily identified.
According to Department of Education statistics, there is a direct correlation between the percentage of students hailing from low-income households and the obesity rate of the school. While only 12 percent of children are obese in schools with more affluent families—districts where less than 15 percent of students are receiving free or reduced-price lunches—22 percent of children are obese in schools where more than 46 percent of students get financial assistance.
Tuckahoe School is the only outlier from the trend locally, with average free lunch percentages but very low obesity rates. On the other hand, the most affluent East End district, according to the Department of Education, Sag Harbor, also happens to be the least obese.
Moreover, Bridgehampton, topping the obesity list, also has the highest number of students getting free or reduced-price lunches.
According to the Department of Health website, obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the country and will soon overtake tobacco. On the state level, New York ranks second for the amount of money spend on medical expenditures attributable to obesity.
In addition, “without strong action to reverse the obesity epidemic, for the first time in our history, children are predicted to have a shorter lifespan than their parents,” the site states.