by Alex Storm @alexstormtmt
Childhood obesity is an epidemic across the United States and much of the developed world. The Clinton Foundation has partnered with the American Heart Association to combat obesity in children, and former President Bill Clinton is asking what more can be done? The answer is to start addressing the huge income disparity in the United States. There is a strong correlation between poverty and obesity. Those in the United States with the lowest wages have the highest obesity rates. Those in the United States with the least education and least income have significantly higher Body Mass Indexes than those with the highest education and income. The steps that have been taken to address childhood obesity have been useful for families of all income levels, but if the government wants to move the needle on childhood obesity, lowering the poverty rate will make a difference.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the rates of childhood obesity have more than doubled over the past thirty years. For adolescents, the rate of obesity has quadrupled. In 2012, one third of all children and adolescents were obese. After the past few years of improved school lunch initiatives and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, the rates appear to be leveling off. Leveling off however, does not solve the problem for the 20 million children who are already obese. They may have to eat healthier school lunches. Vending machines might need to be removed from their schools. They may have to be more active as physical education programs are reintroduced in their schools. These are all helpful initiatives, but the government needs to put energy and resources towards addressing the disease, poverty, rather than focusing on a symptom, childhood obesity.
The real shift in childhood obesity rates will come when parents are better informed and better able to afford a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their children. Parents are children’s first most important models, and they also teach children healthy habits, buy them healthy food, and take time to do activities outside of the house. In order to fulfill these parental duties, families need time and money. Time and money are required for families of all income levels. However, impoverished families are not misallocating these resources, they are lacking in them, and this is the issue that needs addressed in a nationwide conversation about obesity.
Families that live in low income neighborhoods have access to far fewer stores with fresh fruit and vegetables. Stores such as the 99 Cent store, CVS, and many corner stores now carry some fresh food. This is a step in the right direction, but fresh food requires preparation, particularly for children who are not used to eating it to adapt. One cannot expect a child who has been raised on salty, prepared food his whole life to enjoy diving into a salad, so the transition to a healthier diet requires cooked vegetables, at least to start. Cooking takes time though, and time is something that the vast majority of low income families severely lack. Low income families typically work longer hours for lower wages than their middle class counterparts, which greatly cuts into their ability to prepare healthier meals for their children, shop for healthier food, and participate in a more active lifestyle with their children.
Middle class and upper class families do not typically live in neighborhoods considered food deserts; they have access to healthy groceries within a couple miles of their homes. They tend to have 9 to 5 jobs that allow them to come home and prepare meals. They also have the means for their children to be involved in local sports and the time to participate in various active hobbies with their children.
All of the school initiatives are a great start to combating childhood obesity, but the battle will not be won until families are able to combat obesity for themselves. Wages need to be raised, the social safety net needs to be reinforced, and parents need a work week with manageable hours so that they can spend time with their children. Fighting poverty equates advocating for children’s health and well-being. When families are able to earn a liveable wage in forty hours, they are able to take better care of themselves and their children.