Getting a clearer picture of overweight and obesity in Wisconsin

Environment, economic factors can play a role

Contact: Gayle Coleman, 608-265-8928, or Amber Canto, 608-265-4975,

Recent reports about child obesity rates across the U.S and in Wisconsin may sound confusing without a look at the larger picture. One story offers good news–overweight and obesity rates in young children in low-income families are declining in most states. On its heels is another story that says overweight and obesity rates for Wisconsin preschoolers in low-income families have not gone down. Are we hearing conflicting information? And how can we better understand influences on obesity?

Each news story is based on the same Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report (Progress on Childhood Obesity,, but each takes a different perspective. Although overweight and obesity rates declined in 19 of 43 states reporting this information, overweight and obesity rates remained the same in 21 states, including Wisconsin.

“Social and economic issues may not be the first things that come to mind when people think about obesity, but conditions such as poverty can make children and adults more vulnerable to becoming obese,” says Gayle Coleman, nutrition education specialist for UW-Extension. “The basics of good health start where people live, learn, work and play.”

Like all Americans, families struggling to get by may be subject to sedentary lifestyles and overeating, but they face additional challenges. Families who can’t afford the basics in life may face high levels of stress due to worries about paying their bills, neighborhood safety and inadequate transportation.

Low-income neighborhoods frequently lack full-service grocery stores with high-quality fruits and vegetables that are low in calories and packed with nutrients. When healthier foods are available, they may be more expensive than other foods.

Low-income families may also have limited access to affordable healthcare and more barriers to being physically active. For example, there may be fewer parks in their neighborhood or funds to enroll their children in organized sports.

Over the past few years, the percent of families living in poverty in Wisconsin has stubbornly remained at around 13 percent, says Amber Canto, UW-Extension poverty and food security specialist. And while the unemployment rate continues to hover around 7 percent–better than the nation as a whole–job growth continues to lag behind population growth.

Federal food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or FoodShare in Wisconsin), the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and free and reduced-price school meals make it easier for low-income families to get enough to eat and be able to purchase healthier foods.

Community gardens, farmers’ markets, bicycle and hiking trails and other state and local initiatives are also improving access to healthful foods and opportunities for physical activity. “These food assistance programs and community efforts are making it easier for children to eat healthy and be active and are important for helping us curb childhood obesity,” says Canto. “Working to reduce poverty could contribute to reducing childhood obesity, too.”


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