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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Overweight and still starving: too often the case for DC youth

Written by Jacqui Kemp
Program Coordinator — Training & Logistics

The status of youth health in Washington, DC, is a stark dichotomy of abundance and scarcity
an abundance of calories and a scarcity of nutrition. Side by side. Confused? Well, let me explain.

Washington, DC’s poverty rate stands at about 19 percent and 22.1 percent of the population relies on food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. DC has the highest food assistance rate in the country. For the DC SCORES community, however, that number skyrockets. Eighty percent of DC SCORES students receive free and reduced-price meals at school, meaning that their families live at or below 185% of the poverty line (for a household of four, an income of $23,050 is considered the poverty line).

So what do these statistics mean for our students’ diets?

Given that the average food assistance for a family of four is $496 per month, families must be as thrifty as possibly in their food choices. It’s no longer a secret that the cheapest food is packaged and processed. And so, fast food and cheap packaged items have become the less-desirable but obvious meal choices for low-income families.  

Even more, fresh fruits and vegetables just aren’t accessible. Period. Residents in Wards 7 or 8 often have to travel miles to find a grocery store. Appropriately, these areas are referred to as “food deserts.”

Of the 43 full-service grocery stores in DC, only four are located in Ward 7 and three in Ward 8 compared with 11 in Ward 3, the wealthiest area of the city. So we’re talking about seven large supermarkets serving more than 140,000 residents in the poorest area of DC.

Without grocery stores, where do people shop for food? They have no choice but to buy from convenience stores, gas stations, and corner markets, which means packaged, shelf-stable food and little to no fresh produce or protein.

High poverty rates and extremely limited access to fresh produce is a recipe for disaster. And so it’s no shock that 43 percent of school-aged children in Washington, DC, are overweight or obese. Families have no other option but to stock up on high-calorie, nutrient-poor meals.  

With children heavily exposed to ads for unhealthy foods, the problem is not just obesity nor is it hunger. In fact, most overweight or obese children in the District and the DC SCORES program are starving for nutrients. This is why DC SCORES’ Winter Health Program is absolutely essential for the population we serve.

DC SCORES’ winter programming teaches young people why it’s so important to eat healthy meals — such as nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains — and how to make affordable choices.

Combined with soccer practice twice a week, students see first-hand what it means, and how it feels, to live a healthy lifestyle.

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