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COVID-19 May Be Making The Childhood Obesity Epidemic Worse

Published: Thursday, October 15, 2020 - 12:24pm
Updated: Thursday, October 15, 2020 - 12:25pm
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MARK BRODIE: More than 15% of American children between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese. In Arizona, the percentage is around 12%. Those numbers are among the findings of a new report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that delves into the issue of childhood obesity. Among the key takeaways: The number of children classified as obese has stayed relatively constant over the past few years — although there are disparities across race and income. Latino, Black and Native American children are more affected by this epidemic, as are kids in lower income families. Joining me to talk more about this is Jamie Bussel, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And Jamie, what are some of the reasons why the obesity rate among kids is what it is?

JAMIE BUSSEL: So I think that, you know, there's a lot that drives that. I think it's very much about opportunity. And so, obesity is impacted by so many factors and so deeply influenced by community conditions. So it's not just about whether or not a child or a family has access to healthy foods and healthy drinks and opportunities to be physically active. But it's also very much about, does that family have a stable income? Do they have a safe place to live? Do they have reliable transportation? Do they have health insurance? Do they have access to high quality, affordable health care and childcare? And I think what the COVID pandemic is doing is really shining a light on the imperative of us to be rethinking the systems and policies that shape our ability to make good, healthy choices.

BRODIE: Well, I'm curious about how the pandemic has affected that. I mean, in Arizona and around the country for sure, there's been a lot of talk about the number of kids who rely on schools, for example, for meals and things like that. And when schools closed, they weren't able to get those. What are some of the key ways in which the pandemic has affected this issue?

BUSSEL: Yeah, so it's interesting. When you look at the data on impacts of COVID, it really is very resonant with data on impacts of childhood obesity. I do think it's important to note that the data we're talking about today come from 2018-2019, so they don't yet reflect any direct impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. That being said, I think that we can certainly hypothesize the impact that COVID is having on the childhood obesity epidemic. And in many ways, it almost feels like those two are sort of reinforcing or making each other worse. I think COVID's really laid bare some of the stark health and social inequities in our country and really underscores the urgent need to build healthy and equitable communities ... and public health crises. And, you know, that's very similar to the kinds of things that, you know, advocates have long been calling for. You know, when we think about how to address childhood obesity.

BRODIE: I wonder if there's even an issue when you look at sort of logistical issues like when schools close, kids didn't have P.E., and things like Little League and other youth sports weren't able to continue and kids weren't maybe able to get outside and be as active as they ordinarily would have been.

BUSSEL: Absolutely. I think that we can certainly hypothesize that with the school closures and with the significant challenges and hurdles for kids and families to access healthy meals, and again, opportunities for physical activity ... we're likely to see those playing out in, you know, our future childhood obesity prevalence rates.

BRODIE: So would you anticipate, then, that when data comes out that includes, you know, the last six or seven months or so, would you expect that the numbers will be higher across the country?

BUSSEL: No, I think at this point we have some good anecdotal evidence around that. And I certainly think that that is a very fair hypothesis to be making — that, in a year from now we're likely to see, impacts or a few years from now, likely to be able to attribute potentially some of the increases in prevalence rates to consequences of COVID.

BRODIE: Now, understanding that the situation with COVID is different in different states around the country, what kinds of things can we do about this?

BUSSEL: So I think what's probably not different across the nation and sort of across the nation is the disproportionate impact of COVID hitting hardest in communities of color and affecting families with lower incomes and really deepening already existing health inequities. And that's true for kids as well as for adults. Our report, you know, really lays out, I think, a number of specific policy recommendations. So, you know, as an example, we're really calling for the strengthening and modernizing of our flagship federal nutrition programs. So programs like [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] SNAP and [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children] WIC and the school meals program and other policies that help families access and afford healthy food. So a lot of the policy strategies that are illustrated in the report are policies that have proven health benefits and that would all be helpful in not just responding to the COVID pandemic, but more broadly and really helping kids grow up at a healthy weight.

BRODIE: What kind of impact have you seen or maybe just anecdotally at this point, but of the economic recession that has followed the pandemic, in terms of maybe families not able to afford healthy foods or places that maybe aren't able to stock it or have had to close in some communities?

BUSSEL: Yeah, I mean, I think exactly what you're articulating. And I think that's really pushing us to talk about what we can do to rethink things like our food system. You know, I'll also say, look, hunger in this country is not a new issue. I think what is new here is just this incredible sense of urgency and really this unprecedented opportunity that we have to think about the America that we have now and the America that we need to have that supports all kids and families in ways that would help all kids and families thrive.

BRODIE: All right. That is Jamie Bussel, senior program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Jamie, thanks for your time this morning. I appreciate it.

BUSSEL: Thank you so much.

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