For the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent a team of specialists into a state, West Virginia, to study an outbreak of obesity in the same way it studies an outbreak of an infectious disease.
The investigative teams spent a week and a half in each place, going to schools and asking about physical education programs and about what sort of food was provided. They asked, for example, whether students "were offered at least one or two appealing fruits and vegetables every day," Ms. Kennedy said. And "would you replace regular sour cream with low-fat sour cream?"
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They went to workplaces, asking whether there were policies to encourage physical activity. For example, Ms. Kennedy said, "if you choose to walk, could you have an extra 15 or 20 minutes added to your lunch break?" And, were there items like 100-percent fruit juices and bottled water in vending machines?
They went to random grocery stores and restaurants, asking whether they offered fruits and vegetables and skim or 1 percent milk. And they asked whether it was safe to walk along the roads, whether there were sidewalks and whether they were in good repair, whether there was good lighting for walking at night.
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The West Virginia data are now at the agency, being analyzed. Some preliminary information may be available in August, Ms. Kennedy said.
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But some statisticians said it was hard to see what could be learned from the agency's investigations.
Daniel McGee, a professor of statistics at Florida State University who has analyzed obesity data, burst out laughing when he heard about it. "My God, what a strange thing to do," he said.
"They'll find out what we all know - that the country is no longer set up for physical exercise," Dr. McGee said. And that schoolchildren "don't get a nutritious diet." And that "there is a lot of high-fat food on the shelves of every supermarket."
But, he said, "that doesn't tell you much."
"I'm sure skinny people go to those same restaurants," Dr. McGee said. "Skinny kids go to those same schools."
David DeMets, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Wisconsin, was also extremely skeptical.
"We get a lot of false positives from that kind of investigation," Dr. DeMets said. "We get people worried," but there is no way to know whether what is found - a lack of fruits and vegetables in the schools, for example - has anything to do with the obesity epidemic.
"Perhaps it is true, perhaps it is not," Dr. De Mets said.