Task force weighs plans to fight obesity in Harford

Harford County's obesity rates jumped by 130 percent over the course of a decade, the county's top health official said Tuesday, more evidence that the county needs to take action to combat the problem.

Stemmingthat tide will require making school meals healthier, encouraging non-car-based transportation and developing a comprehensive community campaign to fight obesity, County Health Officer Susan Kelly told members of the Harford County Council.

One particular area of the county was singled out as being a "food desert' by a task force studying the obesity problem.

Obesity has become one of the health department's top priorities, along with discouraging tobacco use and behavioral health, Kelly said.

Kelly presented the council, which also serves as the County Board of Health, with an interim report from the Obesity Task Force created last year.

Between 1997 and 2008, Harford's obesity rate among its resident rose from 11.4 percent to 26.2 percent. The federal Healthy People Initiative wants obesity rates to be under 15 percent, Kelly said.

Harford is among nine Maryland counties that have a rate between 25 and 29 percent. Between 1995 and 1997, Harford was one of just four counties to have the lowest obesity rate, between 10 percent and 15 percent, in Maryland

The local rate is consistent with that of most other Maryland jurisdictions, which also went up over the past dozen years, Kelly explained.

The task force's three subcommittees made several suggestions, including:

• Creating a comprehensive community campaign, partnering with key "influencers" (schools, businesses, child care centers and health providers);

• Encouraging walking and biking and development more walking paths;

• Creating more public educational engagement;

• Using schools to teach meal planning and ways to exercise outside the school day; and

• Promoting farmer's markets and advocating for additional fruit and vegetable tastings in elementary schools.

"We are a very spread out community," Planning and Zoning Director Arden McClune, who is leading one of the task force subcommittees, said.

"We are not going to get away from automobiles, but the more people can walk... the better off they will be," McClune said. "Anywhere we go in the county, we certainly see people walking for their health, for their leisure."

Kelly said she hopes to see some of the task force's suggestions move forward as soon as possible.

"What we don't want to have is have some of these really good ideas stalled," she said.

The task force also mapped the availability of healthy food around the county and identified the northeastern area, primarily Street, Whiteford and Darlington, as a "food desert."

A food desert is defined as an area that lacks access to fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy options and also lacks consistent access to transportation or walking paths.

The northwestern Harford ZIP codes do not meet the food desert criteria because they are wealthier, have a higher education level and do not typically have transportation as an issue.

The study found assistance programs like soup kitchens, food pantries and congregant meals are primarily available in the Route 40 corridor in the county's southern tier, which is home to a number of low income people and public assistance recipients.

The task force also hopes to promote its website http://www.healthyharford.org.

Other initiatives

In other health department initiatives, Kelly said the Teen Diversion program, which sends teenagers with substance abuse and other problems into psychiatric diversion programs, is one of the programs at greatest risk of being lost because of state budget reductions.

She said the program has saved taxpayers $3 million in three years.

"It is a program we may have to consider infusing additional dollars in to sustain it," she said.

Councilman Dick Slutzky asked if the county is making progress in convincing people to not use tobacco.

Kelly said funding for tobacco education has been sliding backward and anti-tobacco programs have been cut dramatically.

"In some segments of the population, we are sliding a little bit," she said. "It is really very disconcerting when you encounter young people who know all the statistics, but they think they are invincible."

Kelly also said the children's dental clinic remains popular, with about 4,500 clients.

"We know there are still about 14,000 children who are eligible for dental through medical assistance," she said. "It really has become the dental home for so many students."

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