For Many Teens, Life’s Tough Choices Begin With Bad Food
By Berri Wilmore - January 2019
By Dominiquie Waters (Baltimore) and Joshua Mitchell (D.C.)
Myra Jackson refuses to eat lunch in D.C.’s H.D. Woodson High School cafeteria because, she said, she just can’t stomach hamburgers or grilled sandwiches topped with “fake cheese.”
The people who prepare and serve food to students “are not doing their job. Most students just go to Popeye’s,” said the 16-year-old who, along with 19-year-old Jeff Witherspoon, recently talked at a D.C. Council hearing urban violence and food woes.
“I never eat the school lunches because they were just too nasty,” said Witherspoon, a 2016 graduate of Friendship Collegiate High School in Northeast D.C. “I usually got Pop Tarts, Honey Buns or a Snickers bar from the school store.”
In the shadows of the U.S. Capitol and just a few blocks from Baltimore’s famed Inner Harbor, school children are making meal choices by pushing money through holes in bulletproof glass at corner stores or carry-outs.
Witherspoon said the most popular after-school food among his peers is fries covered with catsup and, for those with more money, it is “fried chicken and fries.”
Now that Witherspoon has graduated from high school, he has changed his diet to more healthy food and is surprised that he is losing weight. “I am getting slimmer.” He also feels better mentally and physically.
Experts agree that education plays a big part in eating right. Young people need cabbage, grapes, oranges and other fruits and vegetables, every nutritionist agrees. But inner-city residents, they noted, live on low budgets and often can’t afford—or find– healthy foods.
There are people in many Baltimore communities who go hungry. Many kids don’t get nutritious foods, and it is not their fault.
One man who wore his hair in dreadlocks told us he grew up on a farm and ate what was on his family farm, and it was healthy.
In another situation, a young black boy said he had two friends who came to his house around mealtime when he was little, and he never made a connection between when they came by and meals. But when he got older, he realized his mother, who was supposed to be preparing our meals, wasn’t feeding them every day because she used the food money to buy drugs and alcohol.
Poor food choices among teens is a national problem and, according to a new study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, if current trends in child obesity continue, more than 57 percent of today’s children in the U.S. will be obese at age 35.
The study also found that excess weight in childhood is predictive of adult obesity, even among young children, and that only children currently at a healthy weight have a less than a 50 percent chance of being obese as adults. This study was published in the November 30, 2017 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Adult obesity is linked with increased risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer,” said Zachary Ward, programmer/analyst at Harvard Public Health School’s Center for Health Decision Science and lead author of the study. “Our findings highlight the importance of prevention efforts for all children as they grow up, and of providing early interventions for children with obesity to minimize their risk of serious illness in the future.”
The researchers used new computational methods and a novel statistical approach to account for long-term population-level trends in weight gain. They pooled height and weight data from five nationally representative longitudinal studies of 41,567 children and adults. Using these data, they created 1,000 virtual populations of 1 million children up to age 19 that were representative of the 2016 U.S. population. They then projected height and weight trajectories from childhood to age 35.
The results showed that obesity will be a significant problem for most children in the U.S. as they grow older. Of the children predicted to be obese as adults, half will develop it as children, according to the study simulations.
Excess weight gain during childhood can put children on a trajectory that is difficult to change, the authors said. For example, the study found, three out of four two-year-olds who are obese now will be obese at age 35. For children with severe obesity–a condition that currently affects 4.5 million children in the U.S.–the risks are even greater: At age two, these children have only a one in five chance of not being obese at age 35; at age five, that prospect becomes a one in 10 chance.
Even those who are not obese as children face a high risk of adult obesity, because of their childhood diets, the researchers found. The study estimated that among those in the two to 19-year old group in 2016, over half will be obese at age 35 and that most of these young people are not currently obese.
The study also found that racial and ethnic disparities in obesity are already present at age two and persist into adulthood, with non-Hispanic black and Hispanic individuals more likely to be obese than white individuals from ages two to 35.
Given the high obesity risk faced by children, senior author Steven Gortmaker, professor of the practice of health sociology at Harvard’s Chan Center, said, “It is critically important to implement policies and programs to prevent excess weight gain, starting at an early age. Plenty of cost-effective strategies have been identified that promote healthy foods, beverages and physical activity within school and community settings.”
Another problem can be found in school lunch programs. Lunch is the shortest period of the school day, only 30 minutes, and when students come to lunch, they prefer to sit with friends and talk.
As a result, food presented for school children is not eaten and often thrown in the trash or donated to homeless shelters.
JoAnne Hammermaster, president of Real Food for Kids, and Mary Porter, program director of Real Food for Kids, have been pushing to collaborate with schools to elevate the quality of food and to develop programs to help students and parents to make better food choices.
The Real Food for Kids program is a real success story. Program managers are able to interact with the students in the schools and the community.
But experts say school officials must reach out to local communities to see if they can get better food choices. But, they note, young people have to be their own advocates.
In Baltimore, some schools have teamed up with non-profit groups who operate urban farms to give young people healthier food choices.
But not enough people have the right economic resources to get healthy foods because of the environment around them. Too many children buy what they see: chips, sodas, and things like that.
During the Baltimore Urban Health Media Project, students visited Real Food Farm located in northeast Baltimore not far from Morgan State University.
“With all of the failed retail and the change in the markets, we have to come up with new ideas,” said Regina Lansinger, one of the speakers at the farm.
Lansinger, director of the Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street non-profit, is raising money to build a “commercial kitchen” in an old gas station. There, local people could start microbusinesses making and selling healthier food that in turn improves the community’s health.