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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.

And it's a decision that has an impact beyond one student's weight.

In Sonoma County, the financial cost of health care and lost productivity related to physical inactivity and overweight people was $437 million in 2006, according to the latest figures from the Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Nationwide, obesity-related medical costs totaled $147 billion in 2006 — nearly 10 percent of medical spending, according to a 2011 study in Health Affairs.

"When we don't help students achieve fitness and health when they are young, it really makes it much more difficult when people get older to achieve or maintain health," Sanchez said. "We need to make sure that we stop that trend. In fact, if we don't, this generation of kids will be the first to die sooner than their parents."

The Latino community is particularly hard hit by increasing obesity.

Parents are the key in fighting both obesity and inactivity, said Francisco Cano, a community activist who started Grupo Activo and works with Community Activity and Nutrition Coalition of Sonoma County to address obesity and inactivity among Latino youth.

"Unfortunately in the Latino community we have a lot of bad habits," he said. "In the Mexican culture, which is my culture, people eat with a lot of oil, fat for the pork, and put in a lot of Manteca to prepare the food."

Cano spends one to two days a week at Roseland Elementary School in Santa Rosa, directing kids in recess play to combat sedentary habits. At Roseland Elementary, 37 percent of fifth graders have high risk body composition, while another 19 percent need improvement, according to state data.

"We have some very bad habits," Cano said. "It is very easy to speak with the kids. With the parents, it's more difficult because they take it more personal. It's not personal, it's for the good of the family, the community."

Kaiser pediatrician Ari Hauptman said he is careful when speaking to both children and parents about weight and lifestyle choices.

"My own feeling is there is a lot of love through food and the typical, matriarchal Latino woman shows a lot of love through cooking," he said of his patients, 25 to 35 percent of whom are recent immigrants, typically from Latin countries.

Parents and children need to make steady, incremental changes in their lifestyles to achieve healthier weights, he said.

"Sometimes it's very uncomfortable talking about weight," he said. "If you say your (body mass index) is high, you say it means you are a little heavier than you are tall. You don't need to go on a diet, you need to eat healthy and you will grow into your body."

The rise in obesity over the last three decades in the United States and other countries is a reflection of fundamental changes in the way we live, health officials said.

"Things have changed in our environment, in our food environment, in our transportation environment," Silver-Chalfin said. "I don't think Americans have gotten that much lazier or weak willed. I think things have changed that have led to this dramatic increase in obesity."

As a community, we are getting larger, Koliwad said.

"We can't afford to take an attitude of &‘This is something that people bring upon themselves.' People who are active are heavier than they were 50 years ago. People who are inactive are heavier than they were 50 years ago. Children are heavier than they were 50 years ago," Koliwad said.

"We can't afford to take the point of view where we think about &‘they' when we think about overweight people, because it's &‘us.'"

Schools have become a key place to tackle the issue of rising weight and inactivity because children spend an increasing number of hours on campus, both for the traditional school day and in programs before and after school. In addition, an increasing number of students are getting their lunch and breakfast served at school.

Schools stand to gain from increased fitness because healthy weight and higher levels of fitness are increasingly linked with stronger academic performance.

Students who had the best average scores in standardized tests in reading, math, science and social science scored "fit" at the beginning and end of a 2010 study by the West Virginia University department of pediatrics. Children who were not considered fit at the beginning of the test and at the end had the lowest academic scores.

The students who gained fitness in the course of the study posted the second-highest academic scores, according to Dr. Lesley Cottrell, vice chair of pediatric research and an author of the study.

"The way we interpreted it was &‘OK, this is promising.' If we had the resources to intervene, whether it was in the schools or outside ... we could potentially see improvements in fitness and academics," she said.

But it's not as simple as putting broccoli on lunch trays or sending kids to the nearest track, experts agree.

Virginia Lazo, a mother of two children who attend Sheppard Accelerated School in Santa Rosa, everyday sees kids forgoing healthy foods included in the school lunches.

For many, nutrition options do not improve when they get home, she said.

"Because the parents are very busy or very lazy, I don't know, and they don't want to prepare food at home," she said. "They prefer to buy food or the children say &‘Mom, I want ice cream or I want hamburger.' And they say, &‘I love you, yes I will buy this for you.'"

Lazo is working with Cano to bring the message of healthy choices and more activity to parents of school-age kids.

"We want to teach the parents. It's a big project for us," she said.

Lazo is an activist, but she is also a parent and knows the difficulties of providing healthy meals for kids.

"Sometimes it's very difficult," she said. "I try to buy health food. If I buy junk food, they find it at home. I don't want problems in the future or now. I love them and I don't want to see them sick."

The data for school kids has implications for entire communities, according to Koliwad.

"Again and again in studies, one of the biggest predictors of adult obesity is childhood obesity. If you are obese at 12 years old, you are most likely to be overweight as an adult, no matter what," he said.

"No child wants to be overweight. No child wants to be obese," he said. "That is a really salient argument against the idea that people do this to themselves."

(News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this story. Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)

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