Recent findings out of CDC affirmed what many of us suspected, the pandemic had a detrimental effect on the weight status of many youth. Regardless of your personal feelings about BMI, it is a valuable screening tool for overweight and obesity and useful in tracking trends in weight status overtime. And what the recent data tells us is that for many children, unreliable food access and lack of physical activity resulted in an increased rate of weight gain. This was particularly true for those in certain categories including those were already overweight or obese and preschool and younger school-aged children.
What does this mean for us going forward?
Continue to improve access to nutritious foods. Many nutrition programs pivoted quickly during the pandemic to deliver food in innovative and efficient ways. We should continue to utilize those advancements going forward, including expanding eligibility for free meals. We must also ensure that younger children, particularly those in child care programs, are not left out in efforts that tend to focus on schools first.
Increase options for affordable and available Physical activity options must be available. We have more information, now on how and where to have youth engage in physical activity. Investment in opportunities and access for physical activity must be a priority in schools and community settings, including affordable and accessible sports leagues.
Invest in community collaboration and infrastructure. We cannot expect schools to do it all. If we learned anything during the pandemic, it was that the support system for children crumbled when schools were shut down. While investing in schools as the core for children makes sense, we cannot forget that children exist outside of schools and their families need support. Additional programs that support families with children include child care assistance, improved SNAP benefits, summer EBT programs that provide additional grocery benefits when school is out and summer feeding programs.
None of the recommendations above are about weight management. They are about supporting a healthy infrastructure and community for our youth. There were many lessons learned over the past 20 months about the need for expanded and stronger support for children and families. Let’s build on those experiences and innovations and proactively build a stronger system for youth.