We're not yet among the best states in the category, but New Jersey's youth obesity rate remains lower than the national average, according to numbers released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Using 2019-2020 National Survey of Children's Health data, the RWJF report finds that 13.8% of youth aged 10 to 17 in New Jersey have a body mass index that would be classified by health officials as obese.

The national rate for this age group is 16.2%, or roughly one in six.

New Jersey posted the 35th highest rate in the nation. Seventeen states posted a rate at least one percentage point higher than the national average. The recorded rate is highest in Kentucky at 23.8%.

"The bottom line, I think, is that child obesity rates remain far too high, children of color and those who live farthest from economic opportunity are at greater risk, and certainly the COVID pandemic seems to be exacerbating things," said Jamie Bussel, senior program officer for RWJF.

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The latest numbers do not show the potential consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, but one study published in September 2021 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the childhood obesity rate increased by 3 percentage points between August 2019 and August 2020.

Bussel said while obesity is largely a factor of one's eating habits and physical activity, just as important is whether or not a child "has a safe place to call home," and whether a child's caregiver has a stable income.

The RWJF report notes that specific programs and policies play a critical role in obesity prevention. Certain changes prompted by the pandemic, such as free universal school meals and the expanded child tax credit, can put a sizeable dent in obesity if they stick around, the foundation suggests.

Among the recommendations floated by the report is the extension of eligibility for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Keeping kids eligible through age 6 and postpartum mothers through the first two years after birth "would align with participation in school meal programs so that there is no gap in supports," the report says.

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