The Sudbury and District Health Unit says the city has higher rates of childhood obesity than elsewhere in the province.

In Greater Sudbury, 29 per cent of youth between the ages of 12 to 17 are overweight or obese — versus 21 per cent in Ontario.

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Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, Sudbury and District Health Unit medical officer of health, was part of a panel that put forth recommendations on how to reduce the growing rates of childhood obesity in the province. (Hilary Duff/CBC )

Now, the province is looking to schools as it recommends ways to slow the rise of obesity rates. Creating a healthier school environment is one of the recommendations of a new report published by the province's Healthy Kids Panel.

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, the Sudbury health unit's medical officer of health, was on that panel. She said obesity doesn't just affect physical health.

"What we also note is that there are the challenges as it relates even to mental health," she said.

"Bullying, how kids are treated as they grow up, [is] a huge issue for kids right now, but also the next generation."

Kids in Ontario schools start learning about healthy living and eating as early as junior kindergarten.

But Melanie Gagne, who oversees healthy eating programming in schools for the Sudbury and District Health Unit, said putting those lessons into practice is more difficult.

‘Get the kids involved’

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Melanie Gagne, who oversees healthy eating programming in schools for the Sudbury and District Health Unit, says they are looking to schools to put more healthy eating lessons into practice. (Hilary Duff/CBC )

Creating a healthy food environment goes beyond looking at what's served in the cafeteria, she noted.

She pointed to classroom celebrations as an example.

"And we often hear about the different birthdays or the different events or all the holidays that go on. Different foods are brought in from home, and those foods don't tend to be the healthiest foods available, so we're trying to get schools to think about that in saying that we can celebrate with healthier options," she said.

"What we're trying to achieve is essentially creating an environment within the school that makes healthy eating the easy choice."

Gagne said other ways to make schools healthier include making healthier pizza and reducing the number of hot dog days.

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Getting children to eat healthier at school should go beyond the cafeteria, observers say. Classroom celebrations should focus less on high-fat sugary treats. (Mike Derer/Associated Press)

"And we're trying to get the kids involved and get them to participate and choose what they want and teach them that, yes, healthy eating could be fun, and it doesn't always have to be foods that are higher in fat, salt or sugar," she said.

The province's goal is to reduce rates of childhood obesity by 20 per cent over the next five years — a goal Sutcliffe said may be more inspiring than achievable. She said the province took 30 years to reach these rates of childhood obesity — and they can't be reversed overnight.

"So the concern is that it's going to take a huge amount of effort just for us to maintain where we're at, nevermind change the trajectory and have the rates coming down," Sutcliffe said.

"So when we say a 20 per cent reduction coming down in five years, that's huge … we have a lot of work to do just to stop those rates from rising."