The health and well-being of California's children varies widely based on where they live, their race and other factors, a new study reveals.
Children Now released its annual score card today showing problem areas and bright spots for young people in each of the state's 58 counties.
Major differences exist, the study reveals.
"Our public policies should work equally well for all children, but this report shows they're not," said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now.
Santa Clara, San Mateo and Contra Costa counties ranked among the top third of counties with the largest percentage of seventh-graders who have healthy weights -- Santa Clara at 75 percent, San Mateo at 73 percent and Contra Costa at 72 percent.
Alameda County ranked average at 71 percent.
But when such statistics are seen by race, wide disparities become apparent, the report reveals.
In Santa Clara County, for example, 83 percent of Asian and 82 percent of white seventh-graders had healthy weights, but just 68 percent of African-Americans and 63 percent of Latinos.
Neighborhoods and income levels contribute to such differences, along with access to fresh foods, safe parks and pedestrian and bike-friendly streets, experts say. A recent study by the Santa Clara County Public Health Department found that only 18 percent of retail food outlets in largely Latino neighborhoods offer quality fresh produce at affordable prices, said Aimee Reedy, division director of programs for the county.
And although some schools now seek to serve students more nutritious foods, many have mobile vendors parked nearby luring students with unhealthy treats, Reedy said.
Many low-income neighborhoods have a much higher density of fast food and convenience stores selling sugar-sweetened beverages that contribute to obesity problems, said Dr. Wendel Brunner, Contra Costa County public health director.
Brunner noted that in San Pablo the average elementary school has nine outlets selling sugar-sweetened beverages within a five-minute walk.
As Contra Costa health leaders seek to address such problems, they hope to ensure that people have access to water at drinking fountains in schools, parks and community centers, Brunner said.
In another category analyzed in the report -- the percentage of school expulsions that result from serious offenses rather than "willful defiance" -- Alameda County ranked among the bottom third of counties statewide, with 91 percent of expulsions for serious offenses.
Contra Costa County ranked among the bottom third in a similar category for suspensions -- 53 percent of its suspensions were for serious offenses, meaning that large numbers occurred for more minor matters.
Students who are suspended or expelled for less-serious behavior "are not going to be in class, they are not going to be learning," said Jessica Mindnich, associate director of research for Children Now. "Missing school is only going to put these kids further behind."
She noted that some schools have established youth courts and other programs in which students with minor offenses are given other types of punishment by their peers that keep them in school, such as picking up trash at lunchtime.
The report, which includes county rankings in 28 categories of health and well-being, is available at www.childrennow.org/scpreview.
Sandy Kleffman covers health. Contact her at 510-293-2478. Follow her at Twitter.com/skleffman.