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Poverty Matters: The Obesity Epidemic

"Compared to more affluent children, Wen says, kids on Medicaid may be less likely to live in neighborhoods where they can play and exercise safely outdoors, and their caretakers are less likely to have access to supermarkets selling fresh, healthy foods" (CNN).

About ten years ago I began teaching as an adjunct at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. It was exciting to go to the collegiate level for a few hours after teaching elementary school during the day. I taught a course in social justice, and one of the assignments, which was given to me by another professor, required students to go to a grocery store in an affluent part of the city, and then go to a grocery store in the poorest section.

The point of the assignment was for students to see the difference in food offered at the same grocery store chain. The twist of the assignment was that the poorest part of Albany lacked a grocery store. Those residents, who could not afford much, had to take a bus to go shopping at a store much further away. I challenged the students a bit more because I asked them to look at the roads they were driving on as they went to the store. They noticed that the roads in the affluent section lacked the potholes that the poorest section had.

We talked a great deal about hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum of this particular assignment was that it seemed that the grocery store chain as well as the city cared a lot more about the affluent sections than the poorer sections. The good news in Albany is that some of those sad realities have changed and there has been some economic development. The sad news is that many cities have not had those same important changes.

Battling the Food Desert
Recently, I watched a video produced by PBS: Need to Know. It was called Saving Carla and it focused on a ten-year old girl in the South Bronx who is fighting childhood obesity and a family history of diabetes and other health issues. At first glance, it seems as though this is an issue about one girl with a health issue. However, when you watch the video you will see that this is as much about poverty and race as it is about health.

Some of us have the luxury of getting in our cars and going to our local grocery store where there is a plethora of opportunities to buy vegetables, fruits and other food that is healthy for our bodies. Sure, the grocery stores are all stocked with food and snacks that are really bad for us as well, but with a little strength we can ignore those aisles.

What if those opportunities were not as available to us as they are now? What if we lived in what's called a food desert, where we are surrounded by fast food and cheap grocery stores that offer fatty snacks, drinks with pounds of sugar and cheap highly processed foods? People who live below the poverty line in large cities have more opportunities to eat unhealthy and it has hit epidemic proportions.

Unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food. Fast food chains offer 2 for 1 meals and can be found on almost every corner. In poorer sections of cities and towns, there is less access to healthy alternatives, and even if there was access, healthy food costs more than fast food. In addition, many people who live in these areas are more likely to buy food that is already prepared rather than try to pay for food that they will have to prepare when they get home.
Carla is Changing Her Story

"Obesity rates increased by 10 percent for all U.S. children 10- to 17-years old between 2003 and 2007, but by 23 percent during the same time period for low-income children (Singh et al., 2010a). This national study of more than 40,000 children also found that in 2007, children from lower income households had more than two times higher odds of being obese than children from higher income households" (Food Research and Action Center).

According the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 17% of all children are obese in the United States. What's worse about situations like Carla's is that kids and adults who live in low-income neighborhoods see being heavy as a way of protecting themselves (PBS: Need to Know). In addition, these families lack an area to exercise and feel unsafe to go outside for a walk after the sun goes down. If they are enrolled in a school that has exchanged recess for more academic time, they have less of a chance of breaking out of their vicious cycle of unhealthy living.

In the story from PBS: Need to Know, Carla is working hard to break the cycle. She enrolled in a health and fitness class through the Children's Health Fund at Montefiore Hospital. Through a registered dietician Carla is learning about cooking, nutrition and exercise. All of the children that take classes learn how to read labels on food and also learn to distinguish between what food is good for them and which is not.

Carla takes what she learns from the program and brings it home to her mom and dad. She is teaching them how to shop healthier and smarter, and if you watch the video, you will see that she is inspiring them to change their unhealthy lifestyles.

In the End
As an educator I always feel that students can teach me as much as I can teach them. Carla is a great example of a child who is teaching the adults around her. This is one great story in a sea of negative ones. This epidemic is hitting poor urban settings in epidemic proportions. They are surrounded by unhealthy situations and have little access to a way out to healthier living. We need to share stories like Carla's so that other children and adults in her situation can find ways to break out of their cycles.

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The opinions expressed in Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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