Big Thigh Country 

How does Missoula’s growth affect our children’s girth?

There’s no denying it: Missoula is a city on the grow, both collectively and individually. As the city sprawls, so do its waistlines, and the cost of our increasing dependence upon motorized transportation to get to work, school and shopping is being borne in large measure by the staggering number of Montana children who qualify as overweight or obese.

Throughout the 1990s, the Montana Office of Public Instruction conducted Youth Risk Behavior Assessment surveys of Montana’s schoolchildren to determine which lifestyle choices were having the most profound impact on their health. On several fronts, the results of the 1999 survey (the latest period for which data is available) were encouraging: Rates of teen smoking, regular alcohol consumption, unprotected sexual activity and sex with multiple partners all showed modest but steady declines.

Where the figures are burgeoning, if you will, are in the numbers of physically inactive youths, who are contributing to what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call “an unprecedented epidemic of childhood obesity” plaguing the United States. In fact, the CDC reports that the percentage of young people who are overweight has doubled since 1980.

“Our nation’s young people are, in large measure, inactive, unfit, and increasingly overweight,” writes Donna Shalala, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in a report to then-President Clinton in the fall of 2000. “In the long run, this physical inactivity threatens to reverse the decades-long progress we have made in reducing death from cardiovascular diseases and to devastate our national health care budget.”

Although there are plenty of solutions to this problem, many city planners and smart growth advocates point to the restoration of walkable communities as one way to increase the level of activity among children and adults alike. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation points out in its report on the social and economic costs of preserving neighborhood schools, fewer than one in eight children now lives close enough to walk or bike to school.

As the numbers reveal, the increasing costs of bussing students to school are borne in other ways as well, from the disintegration of community life to increased exposure to diesel fumes, to the staggering economic cost of cardiovascular disease, which annually costs about $500 for every man, woman and child in Montana.

Number of homes proposed for a new subdivision development on Flynn Lane across from Hellgate Elementary School: 196
Estimated number of children per household in that development, according to the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants: 2-3
Percentage of those children who will likely need to be bussed or driven to middle school or high school: 100
Current budget for Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) teachers’ salaries for grades K-8: $9 million
Current MCPS budget for transportation: $2 million
Factor by which a child riding on a school bus increases his or her exposure to toxic diesel exhaust, compared to others on the road: 4
Level by which such exposure may increase the risk of cancer later in a lifetime: 23 to 46
Estimated number of cancer cases attributed to diesel exhaust: 125,000
Percentage of the general population represented by children under 18: 25
Percentage of asthma sufferers represented by children under 18: 40
Total Montana Department of Transportation budget for 2001: $430.9 million
Percentage of that budget requested to fund the “Safe Routes to School” bill, which would promote easier walking and biking to school: 0.25
Percentage of Montana students surveyed in the Youth Behavioral Risk Assessment survey who say that they actually “exercise or play sports” during physical education class: 44
Percentage of 9th through 12th grade girls in Montana who say they’re trying to lose weight: 61
Percentage of Montana girls who say they use laxatives or “purging” to do so: 8
Number of Montana adults surveyed by the Department of Public Health and Human Services who say they engage in no leisure time physical activity: 1 in 4
Percentage of Montanans who qualify as overweight: 50
Number of Montanans who qualify as obese: one in six
Percentage by which obesity has increased since 1991: 60
Increase in the number of diabetes cases reported in Montana between 1985 and 1995: 15,000
Rank of cardiovascular disease among the leading causes of death in Montana: 1 #

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