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The obesity rate among children ages 2 to 4 participating in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in West Virginia increased from 14.4% in 2010 to 16.6% in 2016, according to data published in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

HUNTINGTON — Despite rates declining nationally, the obesity rate among children ages 2 to 4 participating in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in West Virginia increased from 14.4% in 2010 to 16.6% in 2016, according to the newest data published this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In West Virginia, 30,504 infants, and children participate in WIC, and the state has the third-highest obesity rate in the country among children ages 2 to 4 participating in WIC. Nationally, 13.9% of children in this group have obesity, but that rate has declined both nationally and in 41 states and territories.

WIC is a federally funded program for low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children under age 5. It provides healthy foods and nutrition education, promotes breastfeeding and supports nursing mothers, and offers health care and social-service referrals. WIC served approximately 6.3 million people in 2018, including nearly half of all infants born in the United States.

North Carolina and Alabama joined West Virginia in seeing significant increases in the obesity rate. Kentucky’s rate rose almost 3% between 2014 and 2016, but at 15.9%, it is still lower than the 18.2% rate in 2010.

Ohio’s rate declined from 13.1% in 2014 to 12.4% in 2016.

A study done by the Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities (CARDIAC) Project in 17 West Virginia county schools during the 2018-19 school year found half of fifth-graders in those counties were considered overweight or obese, according to a story in The Register-Herald newspaper in Beckley.

The study included kindergarten, second- and fifth-grade students. Counties included Wayne, Mason, Lincoln, Boone, Mingo and Wyoming.

Researchers found 37% of kindergarten students and 43% of second-grade students were obese or overweight. In addition, nearly 1 in 10 of the sampled children showed warning signs of diabetes.

Any child found to be overweight or obese in the CARDIAC study became eligible for Health in a Snap, a program that offers dietary counseling, educational classes and additional resources at no cost to families. The program is a partnership of the WVU Extension Service’s Family Nutrition Program, West Virginia University Medicine and CARDIAC.

Kristin McCartney, Snap-Ed director, said the goal is not to cause body image issues with children, but to encourage families to make a healthy difference.

“Obviously, this is no an individual problem, McCartney told The Register-Herald. “We need to work on increasing access to healthy foods and we need our kids to be more active.”

Other data show it is not just youngsters in West Virginia dealing with obesity.

West Virginia has the highest adult obesity rate in the nation and second-highest rate for kids ages 10 to 17, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources. The adult rate is currently 39.5%, up from 23% in 2000 and 13% in 1990.

West Virginia also ranked highest in the nation for the prevalence of poor physical health, poor mental health and activity limitations due to poor physical and mental health.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said credits the progress in WIC obesity rates nationwide to positive federal and local changes.

The package of foods and beverages covered by WIC was updated in 2009 to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lower-fat milk. Later studies show that, following those changes, stores started to stock healthier options and WIC participants had healthier diets. In addition, states have increasingly adopted improved child care nutrition standards.

To continue the nationwide progress, the foundation recommends Congress:

  • Increase WIC funding to extend eligibility to postpartum mothers through the first two years after the birth of a baby, and to children through the age of 6 to align with participation in school meal programs.
  • Fund the WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program at its full authorized amount of $90 million to ensure mothers have access to critical supports.
  • Continue to support and fund efforts to streamline and modernize WIC services through technology, including achieving the congressional mandate for all states to achieve WIC Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) by 2020.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.