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Mobtown Beat

Eat This

The Federal Government’s New Nutritional Guidelines Are Nice, Experts Say, But Not Enough To Bring Healthy Foods To Impoverished Families

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 3/2/2005

Last July, City Paper reported that 20 percent of children in Baltimore City were overweight or obese, compared to 15 percent of children in the United States (“Weighty Issue,” Mobtown Beat, July 21). This statistic continues to persist in the city, according to health officials, and a local doctor is now urging parents to follow newly released 2005 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines that urge parents to balance their children’s caloric intake with exercise and to add more fruits and vegetables to their diets.

The USDA releases new nutritional guidelines every five years, and the most recent ones were made public on Jan. 12. “In the past [the advice] of USDA guidelines, for example, was to watch fat and sugars,” says Dr. Shirley Grant, medical director of Amerigroup Maryland, a managed-health care company serving clients who get healthcare benefits through publicly funded programs.

But newly released guidelines can’t solve old problems. “Inner-city kids who live at or below the poverty line are particularly prone to obesity: In Maryland, 29 percent of low-income children between the ages of 2 and 5 are either overweight or at risk for becoming overweight, according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” City Paper reported in “Weighty Issue.” And it is still a challenge for these parents to fight obesity in their children because of overwhelming environmental forces— for example, not having grocery stores in their neighborhoods that sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ken Stanton, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Baltimore, has been working with economists and other obesity professionals at the school to develop report cards for each state’s efforts to control obesity. (Maryland received a grade of “C,” according to Stanton’s work.) Stanton’s research lists the factors that lead to obesity in children and adults, factors he describes as the “infrastructure of obesity.”

Locally, Stanton says the neighborhoods east of the University of Baltimore along the North Avenue corridor are devoid of grocery stores.

“And if you go into those neighborhood stores that remain in the place of full-scale grocery stores, they lack fresh fruits and vegetables, and their products are less desirable,” Stanton says, noting that purchasing healthy foods in these neighborhoods can be cost prohibitive. “And when income levels are low, you can go to McDonald’s and get lunch for basically a dollar.”

Marcella Copes, dean of Coppin State University’s School of Nursing has been working on an obesity study in the city since last year. In addition to the lack of good food choices in many inner-city communities—neighborhoods usually economically challenged and where residents lack basic resources such as healthy food sources and adequate health care—she says there are other influences that lead to obesity in children. For example, kids in these neighborhoods are likely purchase their snacks from vending machines stocked with junk food; if they do bring healthy food to school for lunch, they may trade their lunches with kids who bring unhealthy food to school. Copes says the consequences for kids who live in underserved communities and who don’t wind up eating healthy food at school are grave.

“Oftentimes that child’s only full meal is what they get in school,” Copes says. “Those kids usually qualify for school breakfast, school lunch programs. So it becomes even more critical that what they get is nutritious.”

Last week, the state Board of Education began discussions about banning non-nutritious foods in vending machines in schools so that schools could better meet the new nutritional guidelines.

Meanwhile, even local food-pantry organizations that serve free and nutritious meals to poor communities can’t meet the daily nutritional guidelines. The USDA now recommends that children get three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit per day. But food programs like Our Daily Bread, a Catholic Charities-run soup kitchen that aims to provide a hot, nutritious lunch for anyone in need every day, only offers one serving of meat, one serving of a starch, and one vegetable with its meals. And while the organization offers a veggie plate, this typically does not have a serving of meat.

“If people are having a hard time getting food on their table, what use are nutritional guidelines?” says Mark Bailey, administrator of Our Daily Bread. “Most financially challenged families probably don’t [meet] these guidelines. Still, most of these families are trying to do right by their children.”

But Kate Joyce, food security coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network, an organization that harvests less-than-Grade A produce from local farms and supplies it to communities in need in the Baltimore-Washington region, says there is enough healthy food to go around. “The food is available. Farmers will throw out thousands of pounds of food every year, because the grocery stores won’t buy it or have too much of it,” Joyce says. “So, I don’t think the issue is the absence of nutritious food. It’s the lack of education in terms of procuring nutritious foods, cooking nutritious foods, and the importance of a healthy diet.”

While the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network supplied food to 12,000 families in Baltimore in 2004. In 2002, there were 27,631 children ages 5 to 17 living in impoverished families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Baltimore, roughly 25 percent of the city’s children live in poverty. So while overflow harvest from farmers may be able to fill the nutritional gap of some needy families, it can’t get healthy food to every child who needs it.

While Grant acknowledges that acquiring healthy foods in inner cities and other communities can be a challenge for some parents, she says communities must keep striving to educate parents about them. Amerigroup Maryland has about 130,000 clients, the majority of whom are African-American or Hispanic. In these communities, Grant says, it is likely that nearly 30 percent of children are overweight or obese, compared to 15 percent nationwide.

It’s important, especially for poor people, to recognize that poor dietary choices can lead to expensive illnesses, Grant says. “Even when families are financially stressed, in the long run it is cheaper to eat fruits and veggies than it is to pay for the health fallout of eating poorly.”

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