SPRING HILL — Dr. Michael Griffen sees it at least once a week: A parent brings a child to Sun Country Pediatrics, concerned about the youngster's weight.
"We find out their weight is regular," Griffen said. "They assume their child is underweight when compared to others they look at.''
What the parents are seeing are many other children who are overweight, even obese.
Concerns over the number of overweight children has prompted the Hernando County Health Department to form the Childhood Obesity Task Force, a local initiative by physicians, health care providers, school and local officials to combat what Griffen labels "an epidemic."
Statistics gathered through the Health Department measuring body mass index reveal an alarming trend in Hernando County schools: 14.5 percent of first-graders were found to be overweight, with 17 percent of them at risk. Among third-graders, 19 percent were overweight and 19.5 percent were at risk. By sixth grade, the numbers rose to 23 percent overweight and 19 percent at risk.
Ann-Gayl Ellis of the Hernando County Health Department explained that first-graders tend to be physically active, but by third grade, children already are becoming sedentary as they discover video games. By sixth grade, they are plugged into the computer, indulging in other sit-down "exercises."
Ellis pointed out that kids typically don't mow the lawn anymore. They don't get out of the car to raise the garage door. They don't even get up from the couch to change the TV channel. Little things, to be sure, but cumulatively, they result in a reduction in physical activity.
"The causes (of childhood obesity) are multifactorial, related to genetics and environment,'' Griffen said. "Our environment influences our genes. We know we can control our environment.
"Environmental issues we see most apparent: sedentary lifestyle, sitting in front of the TV and video, overall lack of activity. Food choices: fast food restaurants growing at an alarming pace. The other thing is this inability to afford fresh fruits and vegetables. Healthy food has never been cheap."
Genetics also play a role, he added.
"Genetics does not imply our destiny," he insisted. "Genes don't make you. You can overcome your genes through diet and activity."
Overweight and obesity has led to a rise in children's blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, Griffen said. "That is going to lead to dramatic problems in the future," he said.
The new task force, centered on policy rather than activities, according to Ellis, is aiming at parks and recreation departments, cooperative extension services, schools and community input and involvement. The task force includes some 20 members representing those entities.
Their endeavors are gleaned from some 700 recommendations from a federal Task Force on Childhood Obesity staged last year by President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.
Among the locally adopted initiatives:
• Giving children a healthy start, through advice to parents on healthy snacks and limits on screen time (TV, video games and Internet).
• Ensuring availability of healthy foods, access to food stores with fresh produce, and safe walking or biking to such outlets.
• Encouraging parents and caregivers to read food nutrition labels when grocery shopping.
• Inspiriting physical activity, ensuring that parks and facilities are accessible, encouraging in-school physical education and after school sports.
Lori Drenth, director of food services for the Hernando School District, said Hernando is focusing on elementary school meals this year.
"We're focusing on increased grains, bread sticks, whole grain buns, more fruits and vegetables, less potato options," she said. "Apples, bananas, peaches and pears are more familiar than green beans, cauliflower and broccoli. Kids don't get these vegetables at home."
As for snack items in the cafeterias, they are limited to 35 calories from fat, less than 10 from saturated fat, less than 35 grams of sugar by weight. They include Chex Mix, baked potato chips and qualified popcorn. Desserts such as pudding with a topping or Rice Krispy squares are only offered once a month.
Entree choices number three per day, one cold and two hot, such as sandwiches, wraps, chicken Caesar salad, turkey and cheese wrap, baked chicken, turkey corn dog, whole grain pizza with low-fat cheese and turkey pepperoni, Drenth said.
"We do student testing of food items," she said. "We take them to the school and pass out samples. We get a lot of feedback there. We try to get a nice mix of things they like and work for them nutrition-wise."
The schools also mandate physical education according to state statute, said curriculum specialist Jeff Yungmann. In grades K through 8, 115 minutes to 150 minutes per week are required. In grades 9 through 12, one semester of physical education must be completed for graduation.
Waivers are available, for instance, if a student plays in an outside athletic league, takes gymnastic lessons, participates in marching band or JROTC, Yungmann said.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]