Missoula must be doing something right.
Last week the Garden City was one of two towns singled out for special mention by first lady Michelle Obama in her speech celebrating the Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties program.
The initiative aims to reduce the rising rate of childhood obesity in the United States by encouraging healthier food choices and physical activity.
Missoula is working toward these goals through a host of incentives, several of which Obama described in her speech – including public vending machines stocked with healthier options, free activities for youth through the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department and local YMCA, and a local Unplug and Play program.
“It just shows that we’re doing good things,” said Jean Curtiss, a Missoula County Commissioner who was quoted in a Missoulian news story after she participated in meetings and discussions with national health experts, the National League of Cities and others at the invitation of the White House.
Good things indeed. Less than two weeks earlier, Missoula had just learned it had been named one of the Top 5 places in the nation to raise outdoor kids by Outside magazine. The magazine’s online edition highlighted an article on “The Best Places to Raise Outdoor Kids” that listed Missoula alongside Amherst, Mass., Brevard, N.C., Salt Lake City, and Eureka, Calif.
Unfortunately, these accolades arrived in the shadow of the latest annual Kids Count Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that once again ranked Montana in last place for the overall health of its children.
While the Treasure State came in 28th place for the overall well-being of its children, a ranking determined by its showing in four broad categories, it failed dismally in one particular important category: children’s health.
The 2013 National Kids Count Data Book rated states in four areas: economic well-being, education, health and family and community. Each of these categories includes additional sub-categories.
Montana’s ranking has proven relatively stable over the years. Here’s how the state fared in the latest report:
• Economic well-being: Montana improved slightly, raising from 20th place last year to 15th place this year. The low number of youths not attending school or working are positive factors for the state, however, 20 percent of Montana children continue to live in poverty. And 30 percent of Montana kids live in families where the parents lack full-time, year-round employment.
• Education: Montana earned 13th place for the second year in a row. On one hand, eighth-graders are demonstrating higher math proficiency rates, and more children age 3 and 4 are attending preschool. On the other hand, fourth-grade reading achievement levels did not show significant improvement when they were last tested in 2011.
• Family and community: Montana actually slipped a notch, down from 13th place last year to 14th this year. In Montana, an estimated 35 teens give birth per 1,000 teens, slightly worse than the national rate of 34 teen births per 1,000 teens. And more Montana children – roughly 3,000 more over the previous year’s count – live in household headed by a single parent.
• Health: While Montana did make some gains in this area, reducing the number of children who lack health insurance as well as the rates of teen drug and alcohol abuse, the state still came in dead last. That’s partly because, while the number of insured children in Montana is now 12 percent, that’s still much higher than the national average of 7 percent. But Montanans should be especially concerned that Montana’s death rate for children and teens 45 per 100,000 – significantly higher than the national rate of 26 per 100,000.
Raising our ranking across these four categories will require concerted efforts of all stakeholders in the fields of economics, education and health.
But perhaps, when it comes to promoting children’s health by discouraging obesity and encouraging a love of the outdoors, the rest of the state can follow Missoula’s trend-setting – and nationally noteworthy – lead.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen