As with every other marker of affluence in America, the line between a healthy childhood and one marred by obesity is firmly drawn between whites and Asians on one side and blacks and Hispanics on the other.
And despite reports that obesity rates among children have started to level off or decrease, a new study arrives at a different conclusion. Researchers led by Duke University’s Asheley Cockrell Skinner examined Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on children’s height and weight from 1996 to 2016 and “found no evidence of a decline in obesity prevalence at any age. In contrast, we report a significant increase in severe obesity among children aged 2 to 5 years since the 2013-2014 cycle, a trend that continued upward for many subgroups.”
Income and education levels are usually a good proxy for healthy weight, so it’s not surprising that this newest study, published in the journal Pediatrics, also found that children who are white and Asian-American have significantly lower rates of obesity than those who are African-American, Hispanic or of other races. This is obvious to people who get to see the inside of public elementary schools.
Last year I taught in a majority-white suburban elementary school district where 66 percent of students were white and only 31 percent were low-income. The students were, by far, a fit bunch, even though a quarter of the town’s residents were obese in 2015.
The schools offered ample sports teams for both girls and boys as well as after-school clubs for physical activities like running. The community’s park district provided multiple sporting opportunities, and there were neighborhoods and public spaces with plenty of safe, well-lit parks and hiking trails.
School lunch service was nothing out of the ordinary: cheeseburgers, nacho-supreme entrees and oven-baked chicken nuggets. (Notably, though, no chocolate milk was served.)
Snacking, however, was a different story. My school had an approved snack list that prohibited candy bars, salty chips and sugary beverages. There was a strict policy of no cupcakes, sweet treats or pizzas for classroom celebrations. These rules were enforced by all staff and followed by every student.
This year, in contrast, I’m teaching at a school that is comprised of 91 percent low-income students, only 5.6 percent of whom are white. Thirty-six percent of the residents in the community are obese, and there are few safe public areas where people can exercise. There aren’t many low-cost athletic facilities accessible to residents, and organized sports opportunities for kids are hard to find.
School meals — both breakfast and lunch — are billed as free of additives, preservatives, artificial ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup and “mystery meats.” However, the food itself strains credulity on that score.
Sample menu items: chocolate-chip breakfast bars, animal crackers and milk, and “Pop-Tart Fridays” for breakfast. Honey-battered chicken corn dogs with crispy Tater Tots and cheese-filled breadsticks with chocolate milk for lunch.
And the snacks flow!
Students show up to class with bottles of fruit-flavored sugar water and family-sized bags of hot corn chips or full-sized bags of cookies to munch on. The school holds popcorn sales every Friday and quarterly candy fundraisers. Pizzas are offered as incentives for academic effort, and cupcakes are de rigueur for birthdays.
As a staff member facing enormous pressures to educate students who have overwhelming life challenges, it’s difficult to judge those who indulge in the calorie extravaganza. Cheap treats provide our needy and oftentimes violence-scarred students easy instances of much-appreciated delight for pennies on the dollar.
In America, the land of plenty, we use food to soothe ourselves when life gets rough. Those living in poverty contend with underemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, broken families and chronic disease — 61 percent of black non-Hispanic children and 51 percent of Hispanic children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, according to Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization. This practically requires comfort food since there are few other consolations to turn to.
Meanwhile, the affluent can live active, balanced lives, often facing far fewer crises that cause them to pacify themselves with fatty, sugary and salty treats.
Sure, we can talk about providing calorie counts on menus, limiting people’s access to junk foods and strapping step-counters on kids to promote activity and reduce obesity.
But until we fix a majority of the factors that contribute to childhood poverty — segregated neighborhoods, environmental hazards, the lack of safe outdoor spaces, underemployment — there’s no amount of positive nutritional advice or encouragement to exercise that will slow the rise of childhood obesity.
Esther J. Cepeda is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post.