Weighing in on Healthy Eating Habits for DC’s Children

This post is by Dr. Megan Gray, DC Action's pediatric resident intern for the winter.

As a pediatric resident working at Children’s Health Center in Adams Morgan, the majority of the patients I see are overweight and obese. Weight gain that begins at a young age is difficult to reverse, and by the time my patients reach high school, many are already at risk for Type II diabetes. Recent national obesity research has shown that obese preschoolers are five times as likely as normal-weight children to be obese as adults. In a recent report, obesity rates among low-income preschoolers (ages 2-4) decreased in 19 states, but stayed the same in DC.

The true state of nutrition for DC’s children can be difficult to uncover. While high rates of DC children are overweight or obese (35% of children ages 10-17); the rates vary greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. While obesity rates are high, food insecurity is an equally great concern for DC. In Ward 1, where I work, four in ten children received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) benefits in 2010. Rates were closer to six or seven in ten children in Wards 7 and 8, and half of DC’s total SNAP benefits go to children in Wards 7 and 8. SNAP benefits help ensure that children have access to healthy food at home, and in the wake of the economic recession, SNAP utilization rates have increased in all wards. The map below shows the distribution of children receiving SNAP support by ward. 

However, recent SNAP funding cuts at the federal level last November may increase rates of childhood obesity: researchers believe that food insecurity leads people to turn to less expensive, less nutritious, calorie-dense foods and drinks. The wards with highest rates of SNAP utilization are also the wards most likely to have overweight or obese adults; so the effects of these federal benefit cuts may be concentrated in the DC neighborhoods that need healthy food the most. 

How can DC make up for these cuts? One approach is to improve the meals children from low-income families receive for free in school. The Healthy Schools Act of 2010 provided for more nutritious foods in our schools from grades Pre-K through 12, a win for the fight for children’s health and well-being. But, the latest obesity research suggests that the most effective interventions are in the birth to six age group. Thus, the proposed Healthy Tots Act of 2013 is also crucial to incentivize child care centers and preschools to provide healthier food to infants and toddlers throughout the day. The Healthy Tots Act should be supported, and the SNAP program should not be reduced, in DC or nationally. Our children deserve access to healthy food wherever they are, but with SNAP funding compromised, it may be even more difficult for DC families to fill in the gaps. 

Here are my suggestions of just a few things DC can do to improve food insecurity and fight childhood obesity:

  • Oppose SNAP funding cuts and supplement with local funds
  • Pass the Healthy Tots Act of 2013
  • Mandate Body Mass Index (BMI) screening in schools
  • Collect ward and neighborhood level obesity data on children, especially young children, to determine where best to focus efforts. The most recent ward level child obesity numbers I could find were 10 years old!
  • Prohibit sugar-sweetened beverage sales in school vending machines

MAP: Child (0-18) SNAP Recipients in DC, by Ward.

Source for tableware graphics.

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