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Chesterfield Takes Aim at Fat

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Americans are getting fatter, county health officials say, and they are on alert. They're weighing and measuring children in school health screenings, and letting parents know about potential weight problems.

"We are trying to create the basis for doing something that will result in better health for our citizens years from now," says Dr. William Nelson, health director for the Chesterfield Health District, a division of the state health department.

About 9 million young people ages 6 to 19 — 15 percent in all — are seriously overweight, according to findings from a government report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in October.

Along with the surgeon general, Chesterfield health officials noted last spring that the increasing problem was cause for "a great deal of alarm," Nelson says.

Already, the department annually screens students for vision, hearing and scoliosis. It decided to add height and weight measurements to the list. With the new numbers, the department calculates a "Body Mass Index" for each child, which is compared with standards compiled by the Centers for Disease Control.

Parents were notified of the new initiative, Nelson says. And in October, health-department employees pulled out the scales for four grade levels: kindergarten, third, seventh and 10th. Two to four weeks later, the department mailed letters to parents whose children were found to be at risk.

Similar letters have created outrage in other states. In a school system near Allentown, Pa., a school official told Education Week online that "all hell broke loose" after parents received such letters.

In Chesterfield, the response has been "overwhelmingly positive," Nelson says, although a few parents have been irked. Some have been confused by the message.

One problem, he says, is that weight is so closely related to appearance. "This is not an aesthetic concern," Nelson says. "Some people are upset because they feel it is judgmental or accusatory, but that is not the case. This is really a health issue."

Nelson says preliminary data shows that the percentage of overweight children in Chesterfield is higher than average, but that it is too early to calculate the final numbers. "This is really only a first step," Nelson says. In April 2003, he says, the health department will roll out a public-awareness campaign on the issue.

— Jason Roop

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