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Rhode Island’s child obesity problem

Experts say being sedentary and not eating healthy food both contribute to the high number of overweight children in Rhode Island.Shutterstock/bikeriderlondon

There’s no polite way to say this: Too many Rhode Island children are overweight, and not the adorable, pinch-your-cheeks-because-you-look-like-a-chipmunk kind of chubby.

We’re talking Del’s-on-Del’s-on-Del’s-on-milkshake fat.

The numbers bear it out. More than one in three children in Rhode Island -- 35 percent -- are overweight or obese, according to data published Tuesday by Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy organization.

That means we rank No. 35 in the country – and worst in New England – when it comes to childhood obesity and overweight rates, behind places like Missouri, Montana, and Wyoming. The (low-fat) icing on the cake: Massachusetts is 10 percentage points better than Rhode Island, and one of the healthiest states in the country for kids.

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But it’s not just that Rhode Island should be embarrassed by ranking in the bottom half of the country. Childhood obesity is a crisis because it can lead to all kinds of chronic health problems, like type 2 diabetes, liver failure, and heart disease.

“We’re going to see a generation of children that really are going to be not-well adults,” said Dr. Celeste C. Corcoran, who founded the HEALTH (Healthy Eating Active Living Through Hasbro) program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

Corcoran said it’s becoming more and more common to see children developing diseases, like type 2 diabetes, that you used to see only in older people. It’s a problem most states are dealing with, she said, and it’s even worse for children of color and low-income families.

In 2019, 41 percent of Black children and 41 percent of Hispanic kids in Rhode Island were either overweight, which means their body mass index was between the 85th and 95th percentile for their gender and age, or obese, which is anything above the 95th percentile for body mass index. By comparison, 32 percent of white children were overweight or obese.

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In Central Falls, one of the state’s poorest communities, 52 percent of children weigh too much. Woonsocket is close behind at 48 percent. The Barringtons and East Greenwiches of the world have much lower rates, but they still have one in five children who are overweight.

Corcoran acknowledged that addressing the problem is complicated. Sure, more exercise and a better diet are part of the solution, but it’s not always easy to get children enrolled in the kinds of programs that can help them.

Richard Hemphill, the president of Silver Lake Little League in Providence, said he has noticed the child obesity problem up close in recent years, and he casts equal blame on kids and their parents. He’s watched Little League enrollment numbers fall in recent years, and he sees plenty of children who are so out of shape that they can’t run a lap around the field with stopping to rest.

“Kids just don’t get out and do anything anymore,” Hemphill said. “They have the social media and the cell phones that are distracting them.”

Like Hemphill, Kasha Hanflik is doing everything she can to encourage more children to enjoy exercising. She’s the executive director of Girls on the Run Rhode Island, which has 420 girls from across the state (and a few from Massachusetts) running on 29 different teams.

“We can be kind of recognized as an expert in social emotional learning and physical activity,” Hanflik said. “The coach-mentorship piece is so different than working with your teacher or another adult.”

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Hanflik said the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on young people, and Girls on the Run is only now getting back to its pre-pandemic number of participants. The organization’s goal now to have 1,000 participants by 2025, and Hanflik said she wants to build stronger relationships with the children in places like Providence and Pawtucket.

To dramatically reduce the obesity numbers, it’s going to take more than a few heroes like Hemphill and Hanflik. This should be a top priority for the candidates for governor. Let’s see a plan for cutting the rate from 35 percent to 25 percent over the next decade. Maybe once General Assembly members finish passing the legal cannabis bill, they’ll devote a little time to actually improving the lives of children.

Hemphill has a novel idea. He thinks parents should require their children to sign up for activities rather than allowing them to sit home and play Xbox. There’s no way to mandate it, but we can reduce barriers by making it more affordable to play youth sports.

What if we asked Providence College men’s basketball coach Ed Cooley, arguably the most popular person in all of Rhode Island, to help with a promotional effort to get kids more involved in after-school sports and other forms of exercise? Maybe the next governor can appoint a youth sports czar whose goal is to raise participation numbers.

At the very least, we need to have a candid conversation about the health of our kids and the future of our state. And it shouldn’t take slices of cake and Del’s to get people to show up.

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Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.