The obesity rate among children ages two to four participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in Texas declined from nearly 17 percent in 2010 to 14.6 percent in 2016, according to data published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Texas is among 41 states showing significant declines in obesity among children enrolled in WIC, but it remains above the new national program average of 13.9 percent. 

Kathleen Shields, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s assistant director of community health, said local obesity rates for children receiving WIC have improved in tandem with state and national averages.

“The decline you’re seeing among those WIC kiddos across the nation and locally is due in large part to the change in the food package in 2009,” Shields said. “It’s simply about WIC providing different food than it used to, including whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, limiting high sugar items. We are seeing the results of those changes.”  

In 2009, WIC state agencies started providing food packages more in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and infant feeding practice guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a statement that because of the food package changes, “we are moving in the right direction, and helping parents make healthy choices for their children is reducing the potential for complications posed by childhood obesity later in life.”

In addition to the changes in what foods can be purchased through the program, Shields said the mandatory nutrition education classes are also playing an integral role in helping reduce rates of obesity among children.

“Nutrition education is integrated into every monthly appointment required of WIC participants, and might include hands-on cooking lessons or exploring healthy recipes,” Shields said. “They also receive counseling from a registered dietician every three months.”

Metro Health is the largest of four local WIC providers, overseeing well over half of the county’s 23,700 WIC recipients ages two to five. Of kids age two to five in Metro Health’s WIC program in 2016, 63 percent of males and 64 percent of females were at a healthy weight, according to a participation report.

According to the CDC, to maintain or accelerate these declining trends, local and national organizations can work to promote healthy eating and physical activity for young children from all income levels, and strengthen nutrition education and breastfeeding support among young children enrolled in WIC.

Shields said that, while there is still a lot of work to do in San Antonio and across the nation to reduce obesity rates among children, the declining rate in response to “giving people access to healthy foods and nutrition education” is a population-level success not often seen in the health sector.

“The combination has worked like magic, and how successful it has been in just a short period of time is pretty awesome to see.”

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.