Fourteen percent of youth aged 10 to 17 in the Garden State have a body mass index that would be classified by health officials as obese, according to data released Wednesday.

New Jersey's youth obesity rate is tied for the twenty-eighth highest in the nation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reports.

The report cites a national obesity rate of 15.5% for the 10-17 age group.

The rate is at 12% or lower in 10 states, including nation-leading Utah at 9.6%.

Citing national data, the report finds that 11.9% of New Jersey youth in high school have obesity, along with 15% of kids aged 2-4 who utilize the Women Infants and Children nutrition program.

"Childhood obesity remains an epidemic in this country," said Jamie Bussel, RWJF senior program officer. "The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing economic recession have worsened many of the broader factors we know contribute to obesity, including poverty and health disparities."

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The newly published data show persistent racial, ethnic and economic disparities. Youth in households making less than the federal poverty level, for example, are more than twice as likely to have obesity than youth from more affluent families.

The report notes that the COVID-19 emergency and the nation's obesity crisis intersect in many ways. For one, school closures are likely leaving many children without a regular source of healthy meals or physical activity. Job losses caused by the pandemic can make it harder for families to afford healthy foods.

RWJF said emerging research links obesity with increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including among children. Past vaccine trends, the foundation adds, suggest a future COVID-19 vaccine would be less effective among individuals with underlying medical conditions such as obesity.

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