On Sunday I wrote, “Mayor Heads in Right Direction on Healthy Children.” That followed up my piece from just before Thanksgiving, “Should Council Pass Ordinance Addressing Sugary Beverages?” Between the two articles, we drew over 225 comments and a stunning 9000 unique views.
So I found some of the comments this week illuminating. One person writes: “It sounds to me like a more productive avenue to pursue is improving school meals. That is where the kids are eating every weekday for sure.”
Another writes, “This proposed ordinance is simply a ‘do nothing’ proposition that is designed to make certain people feel good about advocating for children’s health, without doing anything productive to actually improve children’s health. It is a complete waste of time and money and will have absolutely no impact on the health of the children in our community.”
Finally, one writes, “As I said a week or two ago, this is not a local issue. Public Health is under the purview of the County…”
So let me start by making a little admission here—I’m not wedded to this proposal. Dan Wolk put forth a series of potential initiatives, and I think he is raising a critical issue that we should be paying more attention to. So I ran with it. I think my title on Sunday is exactly accurate: “Mayor heads in right direction.”
With that being said, let me lay out a few points that I think we need to think about.
First, I totally and completely disagree with the poster who said this is not a local issue. These kids live in our community. They go to our schools. They utilize city services. This is our problem. Has the county done much to address these issues, in my view, in the last ten years? Not from what I’ve seen.
Can we tackle this issue alone? Absolutely not. We need to work with the county and our schools and really our state, as I’ll explain shortly. But it has to start somewhere and I’m grateful that Dan Wolk has started this discussion and I’m happy to throw fuel on the fire.
So now I want to address the point that this is a “do nothing” proposition – well, instead of dismissing it, let’s make it do something.
Along those lines, let us start with improving school meals. When I raised my concerns about the diet my nephew was eating in his Title I breakfasts, I got some sympathetic ears, but no action from the school district, whether it be a school board member or administration.
We put parcel tax money into improving school lunches, now we need to do the same thing with breakfasts. Part of the problem, as one poster noted, is that “the politics surrounding school parcel taxes has been to try to fund programs broadly so that they don’t specifically favor one demographic subset of the student population.”
He states that school breakfasts “are only available to students participating in the free/reduced lunch program, and when there is a high enough number of such students at a school site.”
This is a school issue that the school board needs to address, but why can’t we all work together to make sure that low income kids are at least getting two healthy and low sugar meals a day?
We need to do more.
A letter to the local paper argued, “It is the parents’ responsibility to make the beverage decision for their children, whether the parent orders or allows the child to order.”
But I think a lot of parents do a poor job here and we need to figure out ways to help. But, interestingly enough, the writer continues, “The City Council may not know that these items are allowed to be purchased with food stamps, the EBT cards. Even candy and gum can be purchased with the cards. The council’s time would be better spent ‘educating’ the legislators who support the food stamp program to amend the list of allowable items, removing all ‘junk food’ from that list.”
They continue, “I have no problem with the food stamp program. I do have a problem with the ‘junk food’ part—candy, gum, cupcakes, cookies, sugar-coated cereals, etc.”
I completely agree—so let us fix it. We already ban the sale of alcohol through EBT cards, why not pass laws to make sure that the only food that can be purchased through EBT cards is “healthy”? Seems reasonable. Why not require people, as a condition of receiving benefits, to take a course every six months on proper nutrition for themselves and their kids?
You think people won’t take those classes? People wait around the county building all day to be served—they’ll take the classes and, if not, it frees up those funds for someone who will.
If only we knew people in the legislature who might push for those kinds of changes.
There is a strong link between low-income people and obesity. Part of it is education, but another factor is cost. As one study showed, “When available, healthy food is often more expensive, whereas refined grains, added sugars, and fats are generally inexpensive…” Moreover, “Households with limited resources to buy enough food often try to stretch their food budgets by purchasing cheap, energy-dense foods that are filling—that is, they try to maximize their calories per dollar in order to stave off hunger.”
And, of course, fast-food is readily available to low-income people and community. “These restaurants serve many energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods at relatively low prices. Fast food consumption is associated with a diet high in calories and low in nutrients, and frequent consumption may lead to weight gain.” (LINK).
There was a fascinating article in PublicCEO about a clinic that is finding ways to help families of overweight kids.
Leticia Ibarra writes, “One major problem in dealing with childhood obesity is that many parents see it as something their children will outgrow—not a major health concern that requires treatment. The clinic used to take this approach, too. We told parents and children to eat healthy and exercise, and to come back next year for a physical exam. This method didn’t work. Most kids don’t grow out of being overweight or obese and many parents don’t know how to help them make healthy choices around food and exercise.”
So in 2011, they “saw an opportunity to expand our work and join forces with other agencies in the region to come up with a new strategy for controlling obesity. One focus of our work is to try to identify obesity problems much earlier in children’s lives, and monitor the problem more closely over time.”
They applied for a four-year research grant from the Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration (or CORD) study of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant is “part of the Affordable Care Act and aims to tackle childhood obesity in impoverished communities.”
She writes, “The family wellness program engages the entire family in learning to make healthy choices. Three to four times a year, the overweight or obese child visits the clinic to see a clinician for a weight management and wellness exam. A patient care coordinator also works with the family to connect them with community resources—everything from recreation programs to food stamps.”
Ms. Ibarra described one family they worked with, who had an 11-year-old daughter who was struggling with her weight. She writes, “This year, the 11-year-old girl’s body mass index went down from the 98th percentile to the 95th, a small step in the right direction. Major weight loss takes time, and the Padillas have made real progress by changing their behavior. The family now eats more fruits and vegetables, drinks more water, goes to sleep earlier, and includes more physical activities in their daily routine. The child’s weight is still monitored by a clinician and the family is welcome to attend any physical activity and wellness workshops.”
But there is more: “But it’s not just families that need to commit to change. In many cases, social service agencies, including those of us working in the project, also need to model better behavior, like serving healthy food in public meetings. As part of Our Choice/Nuestra Opción, experts conducted training with the staff of clinics, childcare facilities, schools, recreation agencies, and restaurants. We also launched a public outreach campaign focused on healthy behaviors, like drinking water instead of sugary drinks, getting enough sleep and physical activity, and eating more fruits and vegetables.”
She concludes that there is no magic bullet, and that tackling this problem “means making a long-term commitment—and understanding that change won’t happen overnight. This is as true for families as it is for all of us.”
So I am grateful to Dan Wolk for getting the conversation started, and I will watch with interest as to whether the local agencies start to really tackle these problems.
—David M. Greenwald reporting