Fitness test results mixed for Sacramento County students; opponents decry ‘fat letters’

Efforts to lower childhood obesity yielded mixed results last year in Sacramento County, according to statewide physical fitness test results released Wednesday.

About 58.2 percent of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-graders tested in the county had a healthy body composition last school year, up slightly from 57.8 percent the prior year.

Most of the students with an unhealthy body composition were overweight enough to be deemed at “high risk” by the state for health problems. The number of such high-risk students in the county rose slightly, going from 27.5 percent to 27.7 percent.

Individual school districts notify parents of their kids’ performance by letter – documents that have become known among opponents as “fat letters” because they identify the body mass index of each pupil.

One such letter, provided to the media by the National Eating Disorders Association, was delivered to the household of an unidentified 12-year-old girl in seventh grade. She was rated in the “Healthy Fitness Zone” in every category but two: aerobic (ability to run one mile) and body mass index; for those she was graded “needs improvement – health risk.”

Experts at the association said they fear the letters may trigger behaviors such as skipping meals, vomiting or taking laxatives. Research shows that 81 percent of 10-year-olds say they are afraid of being fat.

“Many young people are already the target of bullying at school, and this additional focus on weight and size only adds fuel to the fire,” said Lynn Grefe, president of the group, a nonprofit that supports people with eating disorders and their families.

Broken down by grade, local fifth- and seventh-graders saw slight improvements in the proportion of students at a healthy weight; ninth graders saw slight declines. The same trends occurred statewide.

The state’s body composition standards are based on two measures: the percent of fat in a child’s body and the child’s body mass index.

These are calculated using two measurements: a caliper to measure “skin folds” and what’s called a bioelectric impedance analyzer, which measures the resistance of body tissues to a small electrical signal. The slower the signal passes through the body, the more fat is present, said Pam Slater, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

The region’s Latino and socioeconomically disadvantaged students were found to have the highest likelihood for an unhealthy body composition. About one-third of local students in both groups were deemed to be at “high risk” for health problems due to the amount of fat in their bodies. That compares to about one-fifth of white students.

Latino Health Coalition spokeswoman Shayla Spilker said it is hardly surprising that low-income and many Latino students would face fitness challenges, given the number of fast-food outlets and convenience stores located in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“We see barriers to healthy eating in communities, as well as areas without parks and with pockets of increased violence,” Spilker said. “We support a whole host of policy changes, from land zoning options to a soda tax increase.”

Among large districts in the region, Sacramento City Unified, Galt Joint Union Elementary and Woodland Joint Unified had the highest proportion of students with unhealthy body compositions. In each of these districts, more than one-third of students were labeled at “high risk” for health problems.

“The connections between poverty and health are well documented by experts, certainly for urban districts,” said Sacramento Unified’s spokesman, Gabe Ross. “It’s been a challenge. We’ve taken steps to improve fitness and healthy eating for our kids.”

Ross said there’s a daily lunchtime salad bar in each of the district’s schools. “On the fitness side, it’s not just about playtime,” he said. “We work hard to recreate physical fitness challenges. We have a ways to go. We also realize we have a responsibility to make sure kids are healthy so they can learn.”

School districts with the lowest proportion of students with unhealthy body compositions were El Dorado Union High, Buckeye Union Elementary and Placer Union High. Each of those districts has a relatively small number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

El Dorado Union High district Superintendent Chris Hoffman said physical education programs in the district are rigorous and include cardiovascular training. “We want our kids to perform well,” Hoffman said. “Our teachers really put a great deal of effort into that.”