Last month the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) held a health disparities conference in Washington D.C. as a means to spark dialogue about the trends and issues in Black health and how journalists should be covering them. One of the stand-out panels was about child obesity. The panel—boasting some of the top health professionals in the country—talked about risk factors for obesity such as lack of access to healthy food, unsafe neighborhoods restricting the amount of time children can play outside, the lack of physical education at schools and food attitudes. All of them agreed that this epidemic is only getting worse.
The statistics are not encouraging. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 percent of African-American girls ages 6 to 12 are overweight and 19 percent of African-American boys in the same age group are overweight. In terms of Black teenagers, the numbers are almost the same. In terms of obesity, 22.4 percent of African-American children ages 6 to 17 are obese.
And as the conversation continued and they talked about all of the great things that were happening around the country, from First Lady Michelle Obama's health initiative for children to the emergence of healthy food clinics in our schools, one nagging point continued to be made: If children can't access healthy food at home because parents don't value healthy food, don't understand why it's important and/or cannot afford it, then the problem really isn't solved.
Lisa Thornton, M.D., clinical associate of surgery at Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago, furthered this point by saying, "You have no idea how many mothers come into my office asking for help with their baby on their side eating Flaming Hots and drinking Kool-Aid out of a bottle." She added, "She doesn't know else to feed her, all she knows is that her baby is hungry."
And all of this got me thinking: We continue to debate that if there were more grocery stores in urban areas with healthier choices that were affordable, we would be healthier—access to food is crucial. But given a culture of unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyles, would enough of us actually consume it if were in our neighborhood?
I am leaning toward no.
And I say this not because I think people just don't care about their health—some don't even think about it, some people really don't know better, but most importantly we have been trained overtime to like the crap that we eat. And once that happens, there is a serious resistance for change. Think about it: Food is cultural, we are tied to it, and we take it personal when someone questions the choices that we make for ourselves and our kids.
But the reality is that these choices and perceptions about food are not only killing us, they are killing our kids and adding to the cycle of disproportionate heart disease, diabetes, strokes, cancer and oral health issues in our community.
Realistically, this shift cannot happen merely by our own actions. More money needs to be allocated to creating jobs for Black nutritionists who can teach the community how to eat well and the importance of eating real food versus fake food. We need more affordable grocery stores like Trader Joe's and farmer's markets that sell locally grown fruits and vegetables. But in the end, my biggest fear is that when these changes do happen, will our jaded perceptions of food stop us from welcoming them with open arms? If they do, we could eventually pay the price with our lives.
April is National Minority Health Month! This year's focus is on children of color's health and nutrition. Learn more what you can do to promote wellness among our youth here.