Tackling Childhood Obesity in Rural Mississippi
Childhood obesity is a growing health issue in the United States. Children with higher Body Mass Indexes than the recommended by the National Institutes of Health are more prone to adverse health effects later in life. Obesity in early age can translate into adulthood and increases the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes (Franks 2010).
The highest rates of childhood obesity can be observed in the southeastern corner of the United States, Mississippi, in particular, with the highest prevalence of almost 45% for ages 10 to 17 in 2007 (Singh 2010). Children from families with low socioeconomic status (SES) are 150% more likely to be obese or overweight than from families in higher SES (Xue 2018). Pediatric obesity stems from high caloric food intake, lack of adequate physical activity, and familial habits (Gurnani 2015). Children are more susceptible to becoming overweight or obese in a household with a parent who is also overweight or obese (Ogden 2018).
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Mississippi has taken steps to lower the rates of childhood obesity. The TEAM Mississippi Project was launched and utilized schools as a base for their activities. The Project used an educational approach to address the problem of obesity, focusing on countryside areas where obesity rates are higher in the state (Greening 2011). In order to promote healthy habits,
The Project addressed both the child and the parent about nutritional plans, providing recommendations on what foods to eat and guidance of how much physical activity should be done. The community was also a focus for the Project in order to influence the culture to becoming more open to healthy food options and more physical activity (Greening 2011). By 2016, the obesity rate for youths in Mississippi dropped to 37% (National Survey of Children’s Health).
The Project is indeed making progress; however, it relies too much on the individual family. Participation is voluntary and does not reach all children that are at risk.
Though the TEAM Mississippi Project successfully lowered the prevalence of obesity in children by nearly 10%, more can be done to lower the rates in the school setting. Vending machines are a common commodity on school campuses. Food commonly found in these machines consist of high in sugar carbonated drinks and empty calorie chips. Vending machines that provided healthier food options, such as fruits, had lower rates of obesity compared to ones that provided unhealthy snacks (Rovner 2011). Schools should be aware of the foods they are providing to the children and focus on limiting the amount of unhealthy options available on their campuses
The United States’ transition to more technologically advanced curriculum also has its caveats. Children in lower SES have been found to be less active compared to those in higher SES (Xue 2018). In addition, watching television for more than 2 hours in a day increases the likelihood of a child to become obese by almost 50% (Singh 2010). Promotion of physical activity is essential for combating childhood obesity. Incorporating learning to outdoor activities can be beneficial in introducing more physical activity to the daily routine of children. Exploring more hands-on learning and increasing time away from tablet learning limits the amount of time children are sedentary.
Another alternative is to increase the availability of healthier food options and limit unhealthy ones through the food stamp program. Though food stamps increase food security for lower SES families, the quality of the food is not ideal. The guidelines outlined by the Food and Nutrition Service on what food stamps can buy allows for the purchase of high sugar and low nutritional value foods, such as soda, chips and cereal (U.S. Food and Nutrition Service). While the food stamp program is beneficial for ensuring low-income households are able to access food, the program has been shown to increase rates of obesity. Due to the unhealthy nature of groceries available, families who are resorting to food stamps for an extended period have shown higher rates of obesity than those who are on the program for a shorter amount of time (Baum 2010). The food stamp program is flawed for prioritizing less expensive foods over their quality. Revamping the program to focus on fresh unprocessed foods would be beneficial to lowering rates of pediatric obesity within lower SES families.
Eliminating the availability of foods high in calories and sugar through campus vending machines is the most feasible option. The Mississippi Board of Education can look into partnerships with local produce farms or markets to provide fresh fruits to children.
In the case that replacing all unhealthy foods with fruits are too costly for the school, removing vending machines is another option. One must question why such unhealthy foods are even provided in schools. The school budget would allow for more nutritious options by removing expenditures on the machines.
Childhood obesity is a complex problem that does not have a singular solution. However, instilling healthy habits earlier in life is the best preventative measure to combat obesity. Ensuring that children learn to live healthy lives can minimize their risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other illness later in life.
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