A growing number of Sonoma County school children are dangerously overweight, a trend that poses a threat to the county's long-term health and fiscal well-being.
More than one in three fifth graders in Sonoma County is considered high risk in body composition, a measure of body fat. Among seventh graders, 30 percent of kids are considered high risk and 23 percent of ninth graders fall into that category.
The results for Latino fifth, seventh and eighth graders is even more stark. Forty-five percent of fifth graders are considered high risk, while 39 percent of seventh and 30 percent of ninth graders are in the same category.
Students from low-income families also fare worse than the general student population in Sonoma County.
"Part of this is a reflection of the obesity epidemic in the United States. Sonoma County is not immune," said Dr. Lynn Silver-Chalfin, the county's public health officer.
The numbers have grown sharply over the last 15 years, according to a Press Democrat analysis of data collected annually at each school in Sonoma County.
The data comes from a series of statewide physical fitness tests that record body composition, aerobic capacity and four other fitness markers required by the California Department of Education.
Approximately 1.3 million fifth, seventh and ninth graders across the state were given the physical fitness tests last year.
Tests include aerobic strength during a mile run or walking test; body fat measurement; sit-ups; trunk strength and flexibility; upper body strength in push-ups and pull-ups; and flexibility.
While students' aerobic capacity has fluctuated since 1999 — the earliest data available from the state — the percentage of kids with unhealthy body composition has skyrocketed across the board.
In Sonoma County, only 25 percent of fifth graders posted healthy scores in all six categories. Seventh graders fared slightly better, with 28 percent registering healthy in all six categories. Ninth graders did slightly better still, with 32 percent passing all six tests.
Statewide, about 31 percent of students across all three grades received healthy scores in all six of the tested areas, according to the CDE.
"It's pretty startling," said Alecia Sanchez, policy director with the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. "When I was in school, 31 percent was an F, so I think we have a long way to go."
The problem is multifaceted, according to health care experts.
The low cost and proximity of processed, fat-laden foods make it harder for families to make good nutritional choices, while economic pressures can mean children spend more time at home alone while parents are at work.
And kids are increasingly opting out of play time that includes running around the neighborhood and instead are choosing more sedentary pursuits, experts said.
So called "screen time," where kids spend time in front of computers, television and phone screens, is on the rise.
"The deck is stacked against us when we try to live our lives," said Dr. Suneil Koliwad, assistant professor of medicine and chair of diabetes research at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. "The price point for cheap, processed foods is so low it's a no-brainer for some individuals, but it's a very, very disappointing and regretful decision."
Unhealthy weight can lead to myriad health problems including diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease.