Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

The School Neighborhood Environment for Childhood Obesity in a Rural Texas Community*

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

The School Neighborhood Environment for Childhood Obesity in a Rural Texas Community*

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This paper examines the school neighborhood environments related to childhood obesity in a rural community in Texas, focusing on the assessment of three aspects: socioeconomic characteristics, food environment, and physical activity environment. Different methodological approaches were employed to characterize the aspects of the school neighborhood environments. Most public schools in the community were located in low-income neighborhoods. There were disproportionately high concentrations of fast food restaurants and convenience stores within the active travel-to-school zone. Most of the students who lived in the active travel-to-school zone did not walk or bike to school, and student safety was identified as the predominant barrier. Most schools did not have proper guidelines or procedures for walkers and bikers. Moreover, there were heavy concentrations of unhealthy food outlets in the school surroundings where sidewalks were built to encourage students' active travel to school. We conclude that a more comprehensive and balanced approaches should be adopted to increase healthy eating and physical activity, and to reduce childhood obesity.

The prevalence of U.S. childhood obesity has increased by more than three times during the past 30 years (Ogden and Carroll 2010). Reversing the growing childhood obesity epidemic is a high-priority public health issue in the United States (White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity 2010). Despite their significant contributions, biological factors and individual health behaviors, such as unhealthy eating and physical inactivity, have not effectively explained the childhood obesity epidemic (Huang and Glass 2008). Studies have documented societal changes in children's food and physical activity environments, along with increases in the prevalence of childhood obesity (McDonald 2007; Story, Sallis, and Orleans 2009). There have been notable increases in the availability, affordability, and consumption of foods and beverages with excess calories, total and saturated fat, sugar, and sodium (Story et al. 2009). Physical activities and active travel to school have been significantly reduced. According to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (2010), walking or bicycling to school has precipitously declined from 48 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2009 among children aged 5-14 years old.

Although health behavior is considered a function of individual choice, the socio- ecological perspective has suggested that individual lifestyle choices and behaviors are influenced by the environment surrounding an individual. Particular attention has been paid to the neighborhood environment in addressing the childhood obesity issue. Studies have found that the socioeconomic characteristics of neighborhoods (e.g., income, poverty, and racial composition) were related to built environments for healthy living, such as supermarket/grocery store proximity, density of convenience stores and fast food restaurants, physical activity amenities (e.g., recreation and fitness facilities, parks), and/or sidewalks and trails for walking/biking (Grow et al. 2010; Moore and Diez-Roux 2006; Morland et al. 2002; Pearce et al. 2007; Simon et al. 2008). Rural neighborhoods are different from urban neighborhoods in terms of socio-demographic and environmental characteristics. Rural areas often have lower incomes, fewer available recreation and fitness facilities, and more convenience stores, which offer lower availability and higher cost for healthy food selections than supermarkets and grocery stores (Bustillos et al. 2009; Choi 2012; Liese et al. 2007; Sharkey 2009). In turn, neighborhood built environments have been found to affect dietary behavior and physical activity, thereby influencing the risk of obesity (Franzini et al. 2009; Gordon-Larsen et al. 2006; Saelens et al. 2012; Singh, Siahpush, and Kogan 2010). Children who lived in a neighborhood with socioeconomic disadvantages and in the proximity of unhealthy food outlets, as well as in a rural area, had a higher risk of obesity and a faster accumulation of weight (Davis and Carpenter 2009; Grow et al. …

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