COMMUNITY PROGRAMS COMBAT CHILDHOOD OBESITY
Farmers Markets and Farm to School connect kids to food
By Susan Milliken
RALEIGH—North Carolina joined a new top 10 list this year. The Tarheel state moved from 12th to 10th on the roster of the 10 fattest states in the world’s fattest country.
In North Carolina, one in three adults is obese. More than 33% of children are overweight or obese. And fifteen percent of children aged 2-4 are considered obese.
North Carolina has 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.
Obese children become obese adults
Studies show that up to 90% of obese children become obese adults.
New research shows nearly 40 percent of obese teenagers are bound to become severely obese adults.
“Obesity gets worse from teen to adulthood,” said Dr. Sarah Armstrong, a pediatrician at Duke University. “We knew that intuitively, but it’s the first to show how severe it can be.”
Armstrong is referring to a UNC study in which researchers followed 9,000 teenagers for 13 years. Teens who began the study obese were 16 times more likely than their peers to become severely obese by age 30, said Penny Gordon-Larsen, senior author of the study and associate professor at UNC’s School of Public Health.
Childhood obesity leads to health problems
Children may experience health problems before they reach adulthood. Obese children have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Those who escape health problems in childhood will face one or more chronic conditions in adulthood.
Overweight and obese adults face one or more of the following throughout their lifetime: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis and sleep apnea.
Childhood obesity exacts human and economic costs on North Carolina.
Despite medical advances, child life expectancy may be declining, due in part to an increase in weight.
The cost of obesity to North Carolina is nearly $16 billion, while childhood obesity accounts for more than $105 million of this figure.
To save money and improve children’s health conditions, the legislative Task Force on Childhood Obesity this year made several recommendations to combat childhood obesity in North Carolina.
Recommendations from the task force include diverting federal funds to school nutrition programs, increasing physical activity in public schools and updating nutritional standards for students.
Two of the task force’s recommendations may gain non-partisan support, as they bypass government mandates and focus on community programs.
Expanding farmers markets’ capacity to accept Food Stamps
Currently, farmers markets in 12 counties in North Carolina accept EBT cards, which are the identification cards for the federal Food Stamps / SNAP program.
At the Western Wake Farmers Market, revenues have increased overall since implementing EBT usage.
“There is a 2% commission coming out of the amount paid to our farmers,” said Jennifer Gibbs, board member of the Western Wake Farmers Market. “However, our farmers are making more sales in general, so they’re happy.”
The Western Wake Farmers Market (WWFM) started its EBT program in June and is the first Wake County farmers market to do so.
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 recommends increasing capacity of the state’s Farm to School program by hiring someone to oversee the 67 different programs and increasing the efficacy of each.
Farm to School programs include any or all of four main components:
- farm field trips
- school gardens
- cooking in the classroom
- locally grown foods in school cafeterias
Farm to School’s focus is education. The goal of the program is to rebuild children’s connections to their food.
“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.
Jackson muses if a child “grew it, knows who grew it or helped prepare it, they’ll want to eat it.”
Farm to School facilitates hands-on experiences for children. Its goal is to affect attitudes, behaviors and lifestyles, which Jackson says is culprit behind childhood obesity.
Do Food Stamps and Farm to School programs work?
Jackson says the Centers for Disease Control has suggested an effective community strategy to address childhood obesity should include Farm to School and Food Stamps programs.
The problem is accelerating so fast however, according to Jackson, that evidence-based research and longitudinal studies can’t keep pace with rising rates of childhood obesity.
“This is a huge public health epidemic and it’s going to take all different programs,” said Robert Andrew Smith of LeafLight. “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.”
Smith started the LeafLight program in 2001, after working in food security for 10 years.
Smith’s organization provides the infrastructure for farmers markets to accept EBT and debit cards, without incurring startup and staffing costs.
LeafLight grew out of a conversation between Smith and the Carrboro Farmers Market manager in 2004. The manager wanted to equip the farmers market to accept food stamps. Smith had been exploring how to implement debit card usage at farmers markets.
Today, LeafLight provides infrastructure for EBT usage at 15 farmers markets with plans to expand to 26 in the next year. 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 is it 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 took some kindergarteners and first-graders from Isaac Dickson Elementary to Flying Cloud Farm and Hickory Nut Gap Farm. We wanted them to study what was grown locally, tasting as we went along.
We came across this field where some okra was growing. The okra was tall, the children were small. The kids asked if we could eat the okra. They were so transfixed by the tall, beautiful plant. So the kids started eating all this okra.
The chef we brought along on the trip wanted to see what the kids got excited about.
So the next day, our chef had lots of okra prepared—pickled okra, fried okra. The children ate every bit of it—and clambered for more.
One parent wrote the restaurant 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 parent shared that she and her child ate every bit of the okra, which was a first for the child and a first for the parent.”