Meadville Tribune

April 4, 2013

Low-income families face greater risk of obesity

By Chelsea Fleischman
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — Getting her 3-year-old daughter to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and stay physically active hasn’t been a problem for Sue, 30, of Meadville. However, she has found that keeping healthy food on the table can be financially challenging.

“It’s hard when you’re on a budget,” she said.

Since moving here from Warren, Pa., five years ago, Sue has had to learn where and how to best stretch her dollar. She also relies on the Center for Family Services (CFS) Food Pantry, where she receives a food box once a month. Here, she has no options, but rather a pre-made box of items that are organized according to family size.

“I’d rather buy frozen (vegetables) over canned but at the pantry you get what you get,” she said.

Canned tuna, fruit and various vegetables, along with packages of rice, spaghetti, oatmeal and peanut butter are sorted along the storage space in the food pantry. Manager Debbie Vittorio said freezer space is occupied by whatever protein the federal government sends the pantry for that month.

State funding, some federal surplus food and weekly Wal-Mart donations fill the more than 1,000 food boxes that CFS Executive Director Linda Bennett said the pantry served in December 2012 alone.

But like Sue, CFS is challenged by a limited budget.

“A lot of people are needing food that never sought that kind of help before,” Bennett said. “And we got a $32,000 cut in our state food program this year.”

Low socioeconomic status has long been correlated with higher obesity rates. The higher price of healthy food, unemployment, long hours spent between multiple jobs, inadequate cooking knowledge and lack of access to a stove are among the factors that can put those with lower income at a greater risk for obesity.

A December 2012 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that childhood obesity disproportionately affects low-income children. The same article shared data from the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance System, which reported that 14.94 percent of children ages 2 through 4 years old from lower income families are obese.

There are no statistics for the percentage of the population that falls below the poverty line in Crawford County that is overweight or obese, but in Pennsylvania, 12.6 percent of the population is below the poverty line. That number is higher locally. The 2010 Census reported that 16.2 percent of Crawford County’s population and 27.4 percent of Meadville’s population fell below the poverty line.

As a result, affording and budgeting for food is viewed by many as a significant factor underlying local childhood obesity rates. There are numerous stories and statistics that back up this view.

Laura Parker, supervisor of parenting and education for CFS, said she recently worked with a father who was particularly frustrated in trying to afford healthy snacks for his overweight child.

“There is real frustration at the fact that when they go into a place, and I don’t want to mention a particular place, but let’s say a convenience store, that you can buy a giant candy bar for $1 and fill your kid up,” Parker said. “That’s so your kid won’t be hungry. But if you want to buy a little cup of fruit, it’s three to four times the price.”

That example fits with additional evidence of a local income-childhood obesity link.

An effort to improve eating habits

Nancy Diley, health services manager at Twin Creeks Head Start, said that of the 543 kids enrolled in Crawford and Venango counties as of February, 33 percent, or 180 children, are overweight or obese. Head Start is a comprehensive preschool program for primarily low-income children. To enroll, families must meet specific income eligibility guidelines. All of the services are free.

Diley said that because these children are so young and have yet to hit their growth spurt, their Body Mass Index (BMI) readings may not be so accurate. “You have to consider more things,” she said. “But if you’re just looking at BMI numbers, that’s what they are.”

The numbers of Twin Creeks children falling into the overweight or obese categories has steadily increased.

“This is my 19th year,” said Brenda Pardee, health services coordinator at Twin Creeks. “I’ve seen the obesity statistics increase every year.”

Pardee said Head Start offers free nutrition services to any family with a child who is underweight, overweight or obese. In addition to conducting annual nutrition screenings of all the children, Pardee said Head Start asks questions about family cooking habits and access to a stove. Head Start also tries to serve food in various forms to expand the children’s palate and offers recipe suggestions to parents.

Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Director Lorie Darcangelo said federal regulations require WIC offer nutrition education, but the program cannot withhold a participant’s voucher if he or she is not interested. WIC is a short-term program, providing health and nutrition services for low-income families with children who are under the age of 5.

Darcangelo said it seems as though not as many participating families today know how to cook. “It’s very much a shortcoming,” she said. “If it doesn’t go in the microwave, it’s not going home.”

Darcangelo also pointed out that for some of the more high-risk families, it can be hard to focus on healthy eating habits and cooking when they are worried about eviction or paying the bills.

Pardee said many Twin Creeks families are on food stamps, unemployed or underemployed.

“I think our families, they do quick, easy things maybe because they don’t know how to prepare something or they don’t have the time because they’re really stretched,” she said. “They’re working long hours or irregular schedules, or I mean they have a lot of challenges, so we do try and work with them, to help them come up with healthy menus, healthy, nutritious menus that are easy to prepare.”

About the author

Chelsea Fleischman is a senior at Allegheny College from Sarver, a small town north of Pittsburgh.

All students at Allegheny must complete a senior comprehensive project specific to their major in order to graduate, applying the knowledge and skills that they’ve learned over the course of their education. As an English major on the journalism track and a biology minor, Fleischman always intended to go into the health field but couldn’t ignore her love for writing. She saw the senior project as an opportunity to combine these two interests, and after hearing about local childhood obesity statistics from Allegheny College Environmental Associate Professor Caryl Waggett, she decided to explore the topic.