COMMUNITY PROGRAMS COMBAT CHILDHOOD OBESITY
Farmers Markets and Farm to School connect kids to food
By Susan Milliken
RALEIGH—“We became obese when we no longer knew where our food came from,” said Emily Jackson, Director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). Jackson’s program oversees the national Farm to School program in the southeastern states.
Legislators hope Farm to School and Food Stamps at farmers markets programs will decrease childhood obesity in the state.
Officials from the NC General Assembly to the White House deem childhood obesity a health epidemic. The First Lady launched LetsMove.gov last year to address the issue. And last week, Melody Barnes told NC women that children’s health is a priority for the President. Barnes is Obama’s chief domestic policy advisor.
North Carolina stands out against this national backdrop with the fifth highest rate of childhood obesity in the country.
The Academy of Pediatrics describes the rise in childhood obesity as an “unprecedented burden” on children’s health.
North Carolina’s children are more than a little chubby. A UNC study released this week found that 40 percent of obese teenagers are bound to become severely obese adults.
Obese children often experience health problems before they reach adulthood. The Centers for Disease Control reports those who escape health problems in childhood can face one or more chronic conditions as an adult, including:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- heart disease and stroke
- osteoarthritis and
- sleep apnea.
Childhood obesity exacts economic costs on North Carolina as well.
According to Be Active North Carolina, childhood obesity cost the state $105 million in avoidable expenses last year.
To save money and improve children’s health conditions, the legislative Task Force on Childhood Obesity this year made several recommendations including diverting federal funds to school nutrition programs, increasing physical activity in public schools and updating nutritional standards for students.
The Farm to School program and Food Stamps at farmers markets may gain non-partisan support, as they bypass government mandates and focus on community initiatives.
Expanding farmers markets’ capacity to accept Food Stamps
The Western Wake Farmers Market, is the first Wake County farmers market to accept EBT cards. Market staff say revenue has increased overall since they started accepting debit and EBT cards.“Our farmers are making more sales in general, so they’re happy,” said Jennifer Gibbs, board member of the Western Wake Farmers Market.
The task force appropriated $200,000 this year to fund a request for proposals to facilitate electronic payments at local farmers markets across the state. The purpose of the proposal is to find a vendor that can provide the startup materials needed for markets to accept plastic.
Gibbs says accepting electronic funds is good for business and good for the community. Part of the market’s mission is to serve the underserved and to create access and education for those who can’t always afford local foods. That includes kids.
“Our education often focuses on fun things for kids to do at the farmers market,” said Gibbs. “In terms of childhood obesity, we feel like we’re one part of the mix.”
Increasing Farm to School programs proposed by state officials
The legislative task force also appropriated funds for a Farm to School employee in the NC Department of Agriculture. This person would provide technical assistance to the 67 different Farm to School programs across the state and increase the educational components of these programs.
The focus of the program is to rebuild children’s connections to their food.
Emily Jackson muses, “If a child grew it, knows who grew it or helped prepare it, they’ll want to eat it.”
Do Food Stamps and Farm to School programs work?
Jackson says the Centers for Disease Control has suggested a community strategy to address childhood obesity should include Farm to School and Food Stamps programs.
“Because of all of the things wrapped into the farmers market, in many ways, it can be a springboard for people to do nutrition education, to give kids the exposure to healthy food,” says Robert Andrew Smith of LeafLight.
LeafLight provides infrastructure for EBT and debit card usage at 15 farmers markets in North Carolina. However, Smith doesn’t view farmers markets as a silver bullet to ending childhood obesity.
“It goes beyond the farmers market,” said Smith. “It goes to Farm to Schools, the availability of healthy food in supermarkets, even physical activity, vending machines. What I’m saying is the access to farmers markets may be the first exposure children may get to healthy foods.”
An okra anecdote
Jackson has seen firsthand the impact Farm to School can have on families. She shared one of her favorite stories.
We came across this field where okra was growing. The kids asked if they could eat the okra. They were so transfixed by the tall, beautiful plant. The chef we brought along on the trip saw what the kids got excited about.
So the next day, our chef prepared lots of okra—pickled okra, fried okra.
The children ate every bit of it—and clambered for more.
One parent wrote the chef and shared that her child had come home excited about okra. The parent went out and bought okra and prepared it at home. The two of them ate every bit of the okra, which was a first for the child and a first for the parent.”