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Florida counties score well in children's well-being, but obesity is a concern

pre-k classroom table with colorful letters scattered on top
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The Florida Policy Institute's new index ranks counties on their performance in children's wellness. St. Johns County, near Jacksonville, was ranked tops for overall child well-being.

The Florida Policy Institute ranked each county in the state for children's wellness. Overall, the state saw improvements across the board.

Overall, the state saw many improvements across the board in the Florida Policy Institute's 2023 Child Well-Being Index.

The index ranks each county on factors including economic well-being, education, health and community.

Reductions in child poverty, high school students using alcohol and drugs, and graduation rates improved. All but one factor stayed the same or got better.

The top issue found in the index was childhood obesity, said Kids Count director Norin Dollard.

"In urban and rural areas, there's not high-quality, accessible food for a lot of folks. They were much more sedentary, I think that we have been historically, so that plays into it," Dollard said.

Childhood obesity is one of the few factors in which the state did worse. Another was that fewer people got outside and were less active during the pandemic, Dollard said.

"We didn't do this index to pit counties against one another. Everybody wants to have a good ranking," Dollard said. "But our point is that the counties take a look at their ranking and look at what they invest in kids and communities and consider if they're investing enough or looking for opportunities to invest more."

Rural areas rank lower

Dollard said a main difference between the higher- and lower-ranked counties is how those investments function.

DeSoto County came in as one of the lowest ranked in the state overall, with a third of kids living in poverty (the state average is 20%).

It had a higher obesity rate, but did the same or better in other health domains. But the county is rural and doesn't have a large tax base to provide the same level of investments like its neighbor, Sarasota County, Dollard said.

A lot of the indicators measured are related.

"Having lower levels of poverty is probably associated with higher levels of employment and families being able to better support their families," Dollard said.

Along with access to a full grocery store or having the ability to make healthy food choices, she added.

Struggle to find affordable child care

The cost of child care has been an ongoing problem for most of the state.

The index found households in Pinellas County spent over 23% of its monthly income on child care, leading to the worst ranking for affordable options.

Despite this, the overall rank was pretty good, said Dollard.

“Statewide, the fact that there's this big discrepancy between families that are able to afford child care and quality child care, and those that can't, is a really big problem,” she said.

Lafayette County in North Florida was ranked the most affordable for child care and St. Johns County ranked the best for overall child well-being.

Dollard recommends people check their county's rankings.

"And if you're not happy with it, take it up with your school board or the Legislature, or whomever this decision-maker is, for that indicator," she said.

Copyright 2024 WUSF 89.7

Meghan Bowman