PRINCETON, NJ. — The rate of obesity among US children of the ages 10 to 17 remained high at 16.2% for 2019-2020, according to a report released Oct. 13 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The highest rates were among youth of color and youth from households with low income. The foundation gave recommendations on how to prevent childhood obesity, including making universal school meals permanent and extending eligibility for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

The obesity rates were based on the 2019-2020 National Survey of Children’s Health as well as analysis from the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau, which directed the survey and is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The national childhood obesity rate has held steady for five years, but more data are needed to investigate the effects of COVID-19, according to the report.

“The state of childhood obesity in America is an urgent call to action for leaders at all levels and across all sectors,” said Jamie Bussel, senior program officer at the RWJF who leads the foundation’s efforts to prevent childhood obesity. “Obesity is a symptom of deep-rooted challenges that have only been made worse by the pandemic and are a warning sign that our nation’s policies are failing our kids. We must make real, systemic change to set kids on a path to better health.”

Among ethnic groups, the highest obesity rates were 28.7% for non-Hispanic Indian/Alaska natives, 23.8% for non-Hispanic Black and 21.4% for Hispanic. Low rates were found for non-Hispanic Asian at 8.1% and non-Hispanic white at 12.1%.  Among income groups, obesity rates ranged from 8.6% in the highest income group to 23.1% in the lowest income group. Among states, Kentucky had the highest youth obesity rate at 23.8%. Montana, at 10%, had the lowest rate.

Racist policies and discriminatory practices affect the US food system, access to health care, affordable housing and family supports like childcare, according to the report, adding the policies and practices often force families to make hard choices on how to spend limited resources.

Making universal school meals permanent would ensure every child has access to a consistent source of health meals, according to the report. Eligibility for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children programs could be extended to postpartum mothers through the first two years after birth and to children through age six.  The expanded child tax credit and other programs designed to pull families out of poverty and reduce food insecurity could be extended and expanded, according to the report. Other recommendations were closing the Medicaid coverage gap and developing a consistent federal government approach to collecting timely data on obesity rates, including data organized by race, ethnicity and income level.

The RWJF, based in Princeton, funds an array of research and initiatives to address health challenges in America.