A Few Notes About My Summer (AKA: Childhood Obesity–This is Why…)

When I came home for the summer, my yowling fourteen month old in tow, I had a few goals in mind. I wanted to Maren to spend at least two hours a day outside. I wanted to take her on one outing a week, to somewhere fun and different. I wanted to be sure that she would get a variety of foods into her belly, lots of water, and limit the sugar.

We take the childhood obesity epidemic pretty seriously in our house. Mitch and I are both overweight, and fight with it daily. Although Maren has always been average for her height and weight, we know that if she learns from our habits, she will be fighting the same battles that we’ve been fighting for most of our adult life.

Now that we’ve been home for about three months, managing the challenges and realities of most people in my neighborhood– in which most families are below the federal poverty level– I am starting to understand why obesity has become an epidemic.

1) Where to Play?

We live in an apartment complex where it is a rule– written in our lease– that we cannot walk or play in the grass. We’ve lived here for two years, and through observation I think I’ve discovered why these rules exist. If no one tramples the grass, it takes a lot less to maintain it– that’s one. Number two: they spray some chemicals on this grass. They show up wearing rubber gloves and masks, and spray the ground where my little baby walks on her way to the car. They don’t give us any notice about when they are going to spray or WHAT they are spraying– so I assume that the clause in our lease is to protect them legally in case someone gets sick.

So, if we want to play outside, I have a few choices. Within walking distance there are two parks. One is so old-school and run down that I was afraid to go there without Mitch– not because I’m afraid of the neighborhood, I’m afraid of the equipment. A few weeks into the summer, the city came and removed all the equipment, leaving a big muddy hole.

The other park is about a mile and a half away, which I can walk in about twenty minutes with Maren in the stroller. This poses its own difficulties– such as: where does Mommy go potty? What if it starts raining right when we get there?

There are several parks that are just a short drive away, but therein lies a secondary problem.

Parks aren’t really designed for toddlers, even ultra-genius toddlers like Maren. It’s always scary to take her alone– do I follow her up the equipment, or do I stay on the ground to catch her at the bottom of the slide? And then there’s the issue of other kids– seven year old boys are not exactly what I would call considerate. Maren has taken many a tumble as the result of a wild game of Power Rangers. Often, the boys will say “EXCUSE ME!” As they rush past and knock her over. One boy even took her hand away from the railing so that he could pass her, and she toddled nervously on the bridge and– thank goodness– sat down on her bottom with a resounding thud. Mitch has had to stop several kids from going down the slide while she is still on it. And ONE time I saw red when a little girl PUSHED Maren down the slide. Maren ended up going down on her face, getting a nice rug burn on her forehead.

Besides ALL of those complications– the trip in an of itself is a hassle. Have you seen the inside of a diaper bag? It’s intense. A trip to the park is fantastic on a Saturday morning or a boring Thursday– but when this is your only outlet to playing outside it leaves a lot to be desired.

2) I’d LOVE to go to a grocery store and buy some nice fresh fruits and veggies– where shall I go?

My particular apartment complex is lucky in that we have a No Frills about six blocks away. If I had to walk to get groceries for a few days (like most women in my neighborhood do), I could put Maren in the stroller and be fine. But if I didn’t own a stroller (or had more than one kid) it would be a pretty difficult trip. I saw a man walking down the street with a baby in a stroller and FOUR other kids clustered around him headed towards a busy city street. It gave me palpitations just thinking about it. In the meantime, there are three convenience stores within a few blocks. So if I have to walk, have more than one kid, don’t own a stroller, or any combination of those factors, the convenience stores with their gas-station food are going to look at LOT more appealing than walking all the way to a grocery store. And that’s just MY neighborhood– if you drive a few blocks east or north, there isn’t another grocery store for quite a ways.

3) Good food costs money, my friends.

Last year, our big thing was feeding Maren organic food. We were able to afford this for about six months, and then Mitch’s student loans came due and we had to pull back to regular groceries. More recently we’ve had some financial difficulties, and so we’ve had to cut back on our grocery budget even more so– and I can tell you from experience that buying a box of Little Debbie snack cakes is a LOT cheaper than buying a pound of grapes, and the cakes will last longer. Sure, I know it isn’t as good for my kid– but what choice do I have? When you’re poor, grocery shopping is a lot of choices, and I know that for this week we could either buy fresh grapes or we could buy a box of cereal. Granted, cereal isn’t bad (depending on the type), but the grapes would have been better. The cereal has a longer shelf-life and will provide more meals…. so it’s not really a question.

I am writing this blog post in response to this news article:

http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/13/should-parents-lose-custody-of-obese-children/?hpt=hp_bn6

which suggests that parents should lose custody of their children if their children are obese.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and most of my thoughts have centered around just how obese a kid would need to be before I would consider it child abuse. And even then, I think you’d have to find that the parents are either incompetent or are knowingly negligent. But, in most cases, I think what you are going to find is that these parents are desperately poor and doing the best they can, and feel that feeding their kid in general trumps feeding their kid healthy food.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. Most of the families I know in this neighborhood live paycheck to paycheck and make too much money to be considered for welfare (for a family my size your gross income would be $1800 or less to be considered for food stamps, medicaid, or child care subsidy). But they have so many bills– rent, utilities, phone, and yes, car payments, credit cards, and student loans– that they don’t have any disposable income. The only small sliver of their budget that they can control is their grocery budget– and in a lot of cases, it gets smaller and smaller every month.

So, as a society, our response to that is to rip their children away from them? Children they love and have every intention of doing their best to provide for them, but just can’t.

I’m not big on welfare, I’ll be honest. I’m a lot more into education than hand-outs, and I think that the system has become so overworked that they are no longer able to perform the function that they were originally set up for. The focus should be on keeping the family together, not on punishing the parents (and the child) because of either ignorance of nutrition or inability to provide.

In some circles I’ve heard it said that feeding a kid healthy food is just as unhealthy as starving a child, and of course if a child was starving we would remove them from the home. I think that’s really bogus. I think that we’re taking a lazy way out here– it’s a lot easier to tell if a kid is being fed unhealthy food because you can SEE IT. It’s a lot harder to tell if a kid is being under-nourished. By shifting focus from a real problem (aka: child neglect) and trying to point the spotlight on, yes, a major problem that happens to be a hot topic right now, I think that health officials and social services are just trying to make their jobs a little easier.

Lets talk about some real solutions that might have a chance to actually FIX the childhood obesity problem, shall we?

1) Provide child nutrition classes as part of lamaze and make it a requirement to receive food stamps. YES– there will be people who bring deaf ears to these trainings. But for every one of those people there are another two who want to do the very best they can for their babies. I have a degree in child development and still learned a TON when I read a book about making my own baby food, and Maren was a super healthy baby and it saved us a TON of money. There will be people who want to know what they can do and how they can do better. We need to reach out to them.

2) Make it easier for people who do not drive to get fresh produce. Does anyone have a van? Could we start driving into the inner city so people can buy fruits and vegetables? Could this be a program associated with the food pantry, so that if you receive non-perishable items they can be taken out into the poorest parts of town? What happens to fresh fruit in grocery stores when it gets to its expiration date? Can we get that food and do something with it?

3) MAKE YOUR CITY WALKABLE AND PLAYABLE. It’s a lot easier to take your kid outside if its free, easily accessible, and not a headache. When you’re all ready down on your luck, it becomes very easy to just throw up your hands and give up. We need to make it easier for these people to get what they need. PLUS– it’s HOT. The city pool in my town costs $5 for me to go– which is outside of my budget if we want to go more than once or twice a week. So on the hottest days, we stay home.

4) Make physical education in schools an actual priority. In two districts in my metro area, kids get two PE classes a week that last twenty minutes a piece. It’s just not enough.

5) Kids who have to eat school lunches are getting filled full of nastiness. School lunches should be healthy– if you think the kids won’t eat it, guess what? They have to if there isn’t another option. No kid will let themselves starve. Promise. Once I was at a school and thought they were serving mashed potatoes– they were having green beans, but there was so much butter on the top that it looked like potatoes. You should see the ‘fresh’ bananas that kids are being served every day. Also, did you know that according to the USDA potatoes count as both a vegetable AND a starch? So you could have potatoes three or four times a week and NO other vegetable and that’s totally okay according to the government. We need to fight for policy such that the people who provide school lunches do their very best to provide healthy food. I’m looking at you, USDA.

6) We need to empower parents so that they realize that it’s okay to tell their kid no. Maren loves her some Sesame Street. She could watch Sesame Street all day long. I used to use Sesame Street so that I could make dinner without the baby trying to crawl in the oven, or so that I could get ready in the morning without her trying to fall in the toilet. She is now in the habit of walking over to the TV and crying until Elmo appears. I have to put my foot down and tell her no, and MAKE her go play. It isn’t fun or easy. There are many times that I give in. And there are many times when I really really really want to give in. Parents feel like bad parents when their kid cries at them– that’s a fact. There should be more resources for parents to know that it’s okay. Maren will not be traumatized because I limited her face time with Guy Smiley.

Again…. to echo my earlier post about child abuse—- we have to get better at this, people.

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3 Comments

Filed under Baby, Let's Be Besties

3 responses to “A Few Notes About My Summer (AKA: Childhood Obesity–This is Why…)

  1. Jess

    Another challenging post. In my town, one of the churches created a community garden out of an extra plot of land they weren’t using. You only have to pay 10 dollars to be able to plant in your section of the garden and they have master gardener people who can teach you how to use your section most effectively to feed fresh/canned veggies to a family of four for a year. Several families work together on the plots and trade veggies. The best thing is that the extra veggies that families do not use go to the local food pantry.

    Side note: does Nebraska have a WIC program? And if so, did you look into that option for your family?

  2. Jess–

    Yes, and we don’t qualify for ANYTHING. The guy basically laughed at us when we applied. Our income isn’t the problem, it’s all the payments we have from various things. Luckily for us, in the long-run, we’ll be fine. It’ll just be this year that is hard.

    Omaha has lots of community gardens as well, but none (that I know of) in the neighborhoods that need it. Additionally (at least in our neighborhood) you have to be semi-well connected in order to get a plot. We have lived here for two years and still don’t know how to get into the Dundee plot down the street.

    The church idea– THAT is a really good idea! I think that would be such a good project for a youth group. They could have a little farmer’s market and sell the produce from the garden to donate to the food pantry, and what they don’t sell they can donate as well. Good idea!

  3. I love your honesty about the challenges that lower-income families face. You’re right, many people live just above qualification for WIC or Food Stamps, but are hardworking parents doing the best they can for their family. I see it constantly in Eryka’s school as it’s a Title I elementary and we love it. But, I also see judgment from families that are doing so well that they really have lost touch with being remotely understanding or even sympathetic. Instead, they take this arrogant “do what we do” approach without taking into account the endless factors that led to their own success in life. And truly, some part of life is just plain circumstance and to what family and in what city you are born. There’s no room for entitlement, but there is room for people with compassionate hearts like your own, to be able to use their resources to invoke change. I read this article recently about women that started programs to do exactly what you recommend– bring fruit and vegetables and even gardens to populations that lack access. I think you’ll find them as inspiring as I did! 🙂 http://www.familycircle.com/family-fun/volunteering/seeds-of-change/

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