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Study: Spokane schools with higher rates of free and reduced lunch see higher obesity rates

SPOKANE, Wash. - A new study from researchers at WSU Spokane and the Spokane Regional Health District shows when it comes to childhood obesity, there may be more factors at play than you think.

When you think "health," you might think "control" -- over what you eat and how much you exercise. But those researchers say, when it comes to childhood obesity, there's a lot out of kids' control.

"What we have started to really more appreciate is how our diet and our physical activity is shaped by the environments that we live in," said Pablo Monsivais, an associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at WSU. "The things that surround us, the environments we live in, the neighborhoods we live in, can have an influence on the way we live and how healthy we are."

Monsivais said children are even more sensitive to those environments. He, along with four other researchers, looked at the free and reduced lunch programs at 28 elementary schools in Spokane, which he said is a good marker of socioeconomic status.

"We found that schools with higher rates of free and reduced lunch, meaning those were serving lower-income families, the prevalence of obesity there was almost 20%," Monsivais said. 

That's more than double the obesity rate of schools with lower rates of free and reduced lunch.

Here's where environment comes into play: schools with more students on free and reduced lunch were surrounded by neighborhoods with higher crime rates and greater exposure to major arterial roads. So, even if kids could walk to class, many parents might shy away from letting that happen.

"It's really about making the healthy choice, the easy choice," said Spokane Public Schools nutrition director Doug Wordell. "We know that environmental factors play a huge piece in kids' nutrition."

Even though, as this study shows, there's a lot out of Wordell's hands, he's doing his best to control what he can in the cafeteria -- and he encourages parents to do the same in the kitchen.

"It's not just green beans. They get a salad or they might get a peach or an orange or an apple or a banana, so they got choices of their fruits and vegetables," Wordell said. "Make fruits and vegetables available, just there, because if they're there, and the other stuff's not available, they'll choose those healthy items."

RELATED: SPS approves $462M budget for upcoming school year



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