Kansas City Star, June 1, 2008: Better nutrition is solution for obesity among poor children

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The Kansas City Star

It۪s a sad reflection of poverty that many low-income children go without meals, at least part of the month. Yet, the number of overweight children has risen dramatically since 1980.

The two phenomena are in seeming contradiction of each other. We usually think of a hungry child as an underweight child.

Last Wednesday, The Star published a Page 1 story about food-stamp recipients who have had to rely on shrinking government help (in inflationary terms). That۪s nearly 28 million Americans. In Kansas City at least, about half of those are children.

Another story on the same page was about the 17 percent of children and adolescents who are considered overweight, or even obese, in America. It struck me that hunger and obesity must be linked. But why?

Some studies show that about 40 percent of the nearly one-third of American children who are overweight are low-income.

Susan Roberts, director of the Food and Society Policy Fellows Program at the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute in Ankeny, Iowa, says yes, indeed, most research shows higher incidence of overweight children in low-income families.

Some readers undoubtedly will see this statistic as a reason to reject efforts to improve food-stamp assistance and other government food programs for the poor or to personally quit making donations to food pantries. Why help if the children are getting so much to eat that they are overweight?

Those moves would be a mistake. Hunger is all around us, and predictions are that rising costs of transporting and growing food are going to make things worse. We must shake off the notion that being overweight is necessarily a sign of eating too much.

Often it is a sign of eating the wrong things and lack of exercise.

Roberts, a dietician, says lower-income children often do not regularly get nutritional food, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables, because their families cannot afford these items.

In fact, the most affordable foods are often the least healthy in terms of calories and fat.

“You can go get a meal that fills up your kids for less money if you go to a fast-food place than . . . if you go buy fruits and vegetables,” Roberts says.

Roberts describes “food deserts” in inner cities as well as rural areas. Neighborhoods there don۪t have supermarkets that carry a wide variety of low-calorie fresh produce and low-priced brands, she said.

“The best thing they have is a corner convenience store or a liquor store. In rural areas, sometimes there is not access to good food without driving long distances,” she said.

And the poor often do not have transportation to get them there.

Studies show other possible reason for overweight children whose families are food “insecure”:

•Exercise is key to keeping weight off, but parents in many low-income neighborhoods feel it is unsafe for their children to play and exercise outside. Organized sports can cost too much.

• Parental stress caused by lack of money or a job can lead to domestic violence, child abuse and drug or alcohol dependence, and that can cause children to develop unhealthy eating habits.

•Parents don۪t know how to prepare nutritious meals, or do not have time because they are working.

•Lack of health care. Children whose families lack affordable health insurance often do not get to see a doctor for preventive care or nutritional advice.

Roberts says more attention should be paid to government programs that provide fruits and vegetables to children at school. Community food gardens that supply fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods are another help. Farmers۪ markets in “food deserts” are another idea.

My idea: In giving to Harvesters and other food pantries in the Kansas City area, donors should attempt to provide healthy choices for kids۪ meals.

All well-intentioned efforts to help poor families avoid empty stomachs from food stamps to private donations must focus on better nutrition as well.

To reach Laura Scott, assistant editorial page editor, call 816-234-4452 or send e-mail to

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