October 17, 2014

A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Rick Rand

FRANKFORT – Of all the medical gains our country has made during the last 50 years, there is one area affecting our collective health that has gotten steadily worse: our weight.

In the early 1960s, for example, only a fraction of children was considered overweight, but the rates now are at least three times as high. As for adults, more than a third are considered obese and millions more are nearing that threshold.

It’s a trend that is more pronounced in Kentucky than in most other states. As a result, we exceed the national average in a variety of obesity-related illnesses, including diabetes, whose rate almost tripled between 1995 and 2010.

There are several factors behind these numbers. We rank low among the states in fruit consumption, for example, with 20 percent of high school students saying they hadn’t eaten any fruit in the previous week. Sixteen percent of our teens, meanwhile, drink at least three non-diet sodas a day, a figure well ahead of the national average of 11 percent.

We exceed the national average in the percentage of adults and children who do not exercise regularly, and we also have a much smaller percentage of families living within a half-mile of a park.

Another contributing factor is that many areas of the state – especially inner cities and remote rural areas – are considered food deserts, meaning there are fewer opportunities to buy healthy food. Price is a factor as well, with calorie-laden products often cheaper to buy.

Beyond the human toll caused by obesity-related illnesses, there is a considerable expense as well. One national study put Kentucky’s total at more than $2.3 billion dollars in 2009.

Kentucky has been very pro-active in trying to make improvements in these areas. Two years ago, the General Assembly commissioned a report on the state’s nutritional opportunities and found that there are dozens if not hundreds of helpful programs now in place.

Our schools play a frontline role in this regard, and many have extended meals even into the summer. The latest figures show that more than 1,000 sites across the state take part during those months, and they provide nearly two million breakfasts, lunches and snacks when school is out.

Kentucky also participates in a national Farm to School program, and in 2011-12, this provided locally grown food to 364,000 children in 702 schools across the commonwealth.

The Kentucky Association of Food Banks has long been active as well in helping Kentuckians fight hunger while promoting a healthy diet. They annually serve more than 600,000 Kentuckians.

Earlier this month, the association updated the General Assembly’s Agriculture Committee about the popular Farms to Food Banks program, which legislators recently supported by setting aside $1.2 million during the current two-year budget cycle.

This money, on top of check-off donations from income tax refunds, helps farmers who provide any of the 25 crops the food banks accept. During the current growing season, 365 participating farmers received more than $1,300 on average, and the food they gave totaled nearly three million pounds.

Programs like this are making a profound difference in helping Kentuckians get the nutrition they need. There are other encouraging signs indicating a broader turn-around can be reached, something we saw last year when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 19 states had improved obesity rates among low-income preschoolers. While Kentucky was not on that list, we also did not see an increase, something that did occur in Tennessee and two other states.

Our long-term goal is to build on what works and to find new ways to get our citizens more active and less reliant on foods that may be fine in moderation but should not be the foundation of our diet. Returning to the low obesity rates we saw in the early 1960s may not be feasible in the short-term, but it’s something we have to try to do. We simply cannot afford to continue the same trends we have seen over the last 50 years.

As always, I would like to know if you have any suggestions or comments. My address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort KY 40601; or you can email me at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.

To leave a message for me or for any legislator, call toll-free at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Paid for by Rick Rand for State Representative, Regina Rand, Treasurer