Meadville Medical Center Chief Innovations Officer Dr. Barry Bittman said hospital officials have used several different approaches in addressing the local childhood obesity issue. Despite the success of their adult programs, he has found that working with children is more challenging.
“I think across America, people are truly recognizing the fact that this is far more difficult than most people would have ever imagined based upon the fact that you’re really changing the behavior of the family and not just the child,” he said.
That has also been the experience of Brenda Pardee, health services coordinator at Twin Creeks Head Start, a comprehensive preschool program for primarily low-income children.
“It is a highly emotionally charged issue,” she said. “It’s a very touchy subject to talk to a parent about their child being overweight, especially if the parent is overweight, and I’m not going to say every parent because it’s certainly not everybody but I think that often they want us to work with their child but they don’t want it to change how they cook or their lack of exercise and things like that.”
Meadville pediatrician Dr. Raymond Leung correlates the region’s slightly higher obesity rate with its relatively conservative mindset.
“In general, an obese conservative person does not view obesity as a significant problem,” he said in an email. “When you present a different viewpoint which they already have heard many times, they are unlikely to accept your argument in a very short period of time.”
He said that when he has an obese or overweight patient, he shows the parents their child’s height and weight charts, explains what they mean and tries to suggest ways of limiting calorie intake and increasing exercise.
“With their response, you know whether they are going to listen or not,” he said. “I would not spend much time if the parents are not responsive.”
Crawford Central School District Superintendent Charles Heller also said that there’s only so much the schools can do within the six to seven hours of the school day.
A daily 30-minute recess is required at the elementary level, as long as the weather isn’t below 20 degrees, and all levels participate in weekly or biweekly gym classes. Health units are covered in elementary, eighth and 10th grade levels.
The schools have adopted the latest federal and state comprehensive nutrition programs for breakfast and lunch standards but Heller said that increasing waste and deteriorating participation indicate that both students and parents don’t support the changes.
Heller said that a significant lack of funding has also challenged the school district. In the 2011-2012 school year, he said that 42 teacher positions, seven administrative and roughly 40 support positions were laid off. The approved budget for the 2012-2013 school year was $1.5 million less than it was in the previous year, and as the district prepares next year’s budget, there isn’t enough funding to support fourth- and seventh-grade instructional swim programs at the Meadville Area Recreational Complex.
Heller attended the first few BEAM meetings, but said he was unable to continue going because of his schedule.
Waggett said that for many of those involved, herself included, the task force is an add on.
“We’re doing it because we passionately and truly believe that this is really important,” she said.
But until the issue becomes a top priority and collective effort between the city, school district, hospital and community, she said that success will be limited.
“I don’t think we can have the impact that we need until every institution is putting their money and their energy behind it,” she said. “Everyone knows darn well that if you want something to happen it requires not just somebody talking about it or hoping that by volunteer effort or a grant there’s enough behind it. It needs to say this is a top priority; and long term, it has incredible health outcomes for all of us and economic outcomes for everybody.”