Obesity, poverty, and children
Not only is the present workforce getting wider—our future workforce is also increasingly overweight. Childhood obesity is an epidemic in this country, with approximately 3,600 new cases of type 2 diabetes cropping up yearly in children—once considered a portion of the population that rarely, if ever, suffered from that affliction. According to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, if we continue along this path, one-third of all children born after 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
Childhood obesity and overweight rates are especially high in families living below the poverty line. Whereas one in three children in the general population is considered overweight or obese, a staggering 44.8 percent—almost half—of children in poverty fall into these categories. Many researchers argue that this trend is in part due to the higher prices of healthier, perishable foods such as fruit and vegetables when compared to foods with long shelf lives, including chips and soda. In other words, “families get fatter as they buy cheaper and less healthy foods in order to try to fill up.”
Hunger and obesity are closely linked for many of these families living below the poverty line. Though they can take advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program designed to help them put food on the table, oftentimes the program benefits don’t cover more expensive foods such as fresh produce, so they are forced to choose the cheaper and less healthy food items. There are also plenty of people living in poverty who would perhaps rather eat more healthful foods but live in areas called food deserts—places that just don’t have access to foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables because full-service grocery stores don’t exist within a reasonable radius.
How community schools could help
One way the Center for American Progress believes we can help lift these families out of poverty and make healthier options more available to them is to pair antipoverty strategies with schools. These so-called community schools enable teachers, principals, and other staff to “concentrate on what’s happening in the classroom with the knowledge that students’ ‘outside’ needs are being addressed.”
It is well-documented that poor students are extremely affected in the classroom by issues related to poverty and that the malnutrition and other food issues that many poor students face cause a lack of concentration and motivation in school. But one problem families in poverty face when trying to take part in programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is accessibility—meaning many Americans don’t know about or can’t easily qualify for these programs, or if they do figure it out, they choose not to participate because of the stigma surrounding social welfare programs.
Schools are well-positioned to deal with these issues because they have the best access to poor students, are entrenched in communities and thus are familiar institutions, and have already-established relationships with poor students and their families. These schools are a great way to connect families with programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition assistance program, and other healthy food bank resources for families that need help.
Other schools also have experience providing services to needy families in off-peak times—federal programs in place make it possible for these schools to provide meals for poor children after school and over the summer, when many kids go hungry or are forced to choose cheap, unhealthy options because they can’t access or afford a well-balanced meal.
Centralizing these antipoverty programs under one roof—in schools—can combat the issues of accessibility and stigma, and will help relieve the pressure many families feel, which in turn will alleviate stress for poor students. At the same time it will help families make better, healthier lifestyle choices, all of which leads to healthier children and thus better students.
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