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C-plus rating for Mass. on health

Massachusetts is making strides toward reducing childhood obesity but still has a way to go in improving health education and public health funding, according to a health and wellness report card being released Tuesday by two nonprofit groups.

The annual report card from the Boston Foundation and NEHI, a health policy think tank, gave Massachusetts an average grade of C-plus in 14 categories related to healthy living, up from C minus in 2011. The state improved in the health of school meals, public health funding, and food deserts — neighborhoods without retailers selling healthy options — but dropped from a B-plus to a B in biking and walking because of safety concerns. Other grades, including for youth physical activity and trans fats regulation, were unchanged.

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There were no As, but the state received an A-minus, its best grade in the three years the report has been issued, for school-based reporting of body mass index.

BMI is a measure of obesity that takes into account height, weight, age, and gender. In April 2009, some Massachusetts schools began screening children in grades 1, 4, 7, and 10, and since 2010, all school districts have been required to measure BMI annually. School nurses record students’ BMIs and send a letter home to parents explaining the meaning of their child’s results.

“The BMI reporting can actually give us a point of measurement that, systematically, across the state, the nurses do across all the grade levels,” said Allison Bauer, an author of the report card.

A preliminary report released in December by the state Department of Public Health showed slight decreases in the number of overweight and obese children in the two years since 2009. But more data are needed over the next five to six years to note meaningful declines, the report said.

The report found that 32 percent of children were overweight or obese in 2010-2011, compared with 34 percent a year earlier. Needham had the fewest overweight or obese children, at 15 percent. In Southbridge, the most overweight of the communities, 53 percent of children exceeded a healthy weight.

Some towns have seen major decreases in child obesity since the BMI reporting began. In Fitchburg, 46 percent of children were overweight or obese in 2008-2009. That number sank to 41 percent in 2010-2011.

Mary Giannetti, director of wellness and nutrition for the Montachusett Opportunity Council, attributed the community’s improvements to increased emphasis on walk-to-school initiatives, healthier vending options across the city, and better education on exercise and food choices.

Sanjena Sathian can be reached at sanjena.sathian@globe.com.
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