Creating Healthy Communities for Everyone: The Time is Now
Today marks the release of the “F as in Fat 2010″ report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As the advisory board chair for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity, Angela Glover Blackwell contributed this commentary to the report.
Creating Healthy Communities for Everyone: The Time is now
By Angela Glover Blackwell
Where you live has a lot to do with how you live.
Some of us live in communities rich with job opportunities, good schools and resources such as parks and playgrounds, grocery stores selling nutritious food, streets safe for walking and transit options that promote physical activity. Many others do not. Predominantly black neighborhoods, for example, have few supermarkets, farmers’ markets or grocery stores where residents can buy healthy food. In many lower-income black and Latino communities, children have few safe parks, bike trails and public pools where they can play and burn off calories.
For every white parent who says neighborhood safety is a barrier to physical activity, four Latino parents say the same.
Poverty, race and obesity are often linked. Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, has the highest obesity rate of any state and the highest proportion (40%) of obese children ages 10–17. More than half of Black children in the state are overweight or obese. Lack of access to healthy food may be partly to blame; in Mississippi, more than 70 percent of food-stamp eligible households must travel more than 30 miles to reach a supermarket. The South, the country’s poorest region, is particularly hard hit by obesity. Six other Southern states that rank among the poorest in the nation (Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia) have the highest rates of overweight and obese children.
Research increasingly suggests that the places where people live influence dietary behaviors and affect health outcomes. For example, one study showed people who live near an abundance of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores (as opposed to grocery stores and produce vendors) have a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes. The study found that a greater proportion of low-income people and people of color live in these environments. It suggests that improving the retail food environment may be one promising strategy for reducing the prevalence of obesity and other related chronic conditions such as diabetes that are hitting low-income people of color hard. Almost 43 percent of Mexican-American children and almost 37 percent of Black children ages 6–11 are overweight or obese, compared with 32 percent of White children.
By 2050, communities of color are slated to become the majority group in America. Already, more than 40 percent of Americans under age 18 are people of color. The continued economic vitality of the nation will depend on the contributions of this group; they must be healthy enough to lead. It is urgent that the nation begin improving the communities where people of color live now.
Fortunately, many local communities have begun creating models that address unhealthy living conditions. For instance, in Somerville, Mass., families, schools, local government, civic organizations and workplaces have collaborated on policy and environmental change through Shape Up Somerville.
Early evaluation showed the initiative slowed the rates of weight gain among first- through third-graders at high risk for obesity.
In Georgia, a Southern state that is grappling with the third highest percentage (37%) of overweight and obese children in the country, the Healthy Kids, Smart Kids program is making a difference. Developed by Dr. Yvonne Sanders Butler, the principal at Browns Mill Elementary and Magnet School in DeKalb County near Atlanta, the initiative brings about reform through an inclusive community engagement process involving students – the vast majority of whom are Black – and parents, teachers and other allies such as church leaders and local politicians. The program has lengthened the physical activity daily requirement and introduced more nutritious foods such as oatmeal, yogurt, and multiple servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some children have lost up to 50 pounds, and school absenteeism has declined, among other benefits. The program has really taken off: 19 schools in the region have implemented Healthy Kids, Smart Kids to date.
In the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, N.Y, a nonprofit group, Added Value, is working with young people to build more equitable food systems, involving them in farm-to-classroom programs and urban agriculture projects. Food grown on the urban farm is sold at a local farmers’ market that provides low-income residents with access to healthy food.
Change can happen by thinking more broadly and comprehensively. The federal transportation bill that is due for reauthorization presents another opportunity to re-imagine the nation’s communities. This bill has the power to create better health by guiding funding toward projects that promote walking and bicycling, and by making sure that underserved communities are connected to opportunity, such as jobs, health facilities and other essentials.
Ultimately, to build more healthy communities and make sure that all children have access to nutritious food and safe parks and streets, we must all become policy advocates. Learning from the examples that are beginning to proliferate across the country, we can create healthy environments for all.