Texas children sandwiched between hunger and obesity
Two recent reports relayed bad and seemingly paradoxical news for Texas children. According to the latest research, our Texas kids, more than almost any in the country, face threats from both hunger and obesity.
Nearly one out of four Texas children is “food insecure,” meaning they might not know where their next meal will come from, says a July 1 report from Feeding America, which ranked Texas 49th in the country for providing reliable food access for children under 18. The same week, however, the Trust for America’s Health announced Texas children suffer disproportionately from obesity. More than 20 percent of kids here are obese, and Texas had the seventh-highest child obesity ranking.
Underlying these statistics is a sad reality: Too many children get poorly nourished because their environment—at school, in the neighborhood and their community—proves inhospitable to healthy eating. Four factors help explain why.
Obesity and hunger might seem like opposites, but in reality both reflect financial struggle. And about half of Texas children grow up in low-income households.
First, obesity and hunger might seem like opposites, but in reality both reflect financial struggle. About half of Texas children grow up in low-income households, where cheap but satiating junk food might be all that fits the family budget. A 2007 study of grocery prices found 1,000 calories of junk food, like pastries and soda, cost on average 10 times less than 1,000 calories of nutritious foods, like fruits and vegetables. Families can fill up on processed foods for just a few dollars, a price Texas farmers can’t easily match with fresh, wholesome food. The result is children having diets that are either too limited or too empty of calories.
Second, many Texas families live in areas without any supermarkets or other places to buy produce. Known as “food deserts,” these mostly rural and inner-city areas tend to have only two choices for food shopping: convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.
Families know what they should feed their children, and evidence shows bringing more healthy options to food deserts through public-private partnerships can make a big difference. The mere presence of a supermarket in one study increased fruit and vegetable consumption 32 percent for a vulnerable group.
Third, in Texas, many children eligible for public feeding programs face unnecessary hurdles. Our state has struggled to provide benefits like food stamps to all the families who qualify and apply for the program. While agency leaders have worked to improve the state’s system for food stamp enrollment, elected officials continue to provide too little support for removing barriers that keep many families who qualify from receiving timely assistance.
Also, in summer months like these, no school means no school lunches or breakfasts (which research links to lower obesity rates in some kids). Texas’s Summer Food Service Program serves only a fraction of the children who participate in the school-year programs. The state needs more sites to offer summer feeding, especially in rural areas, and many families don’t know about the program. Providing incentives and decreasing the administrative burden for more nonprofits, park and recreation departments, schools and faith-based groups to host summer feeding programs would bolster participation.
Finally, many of our policies to deal with child hunger came about in a different era. Today, both hunger and obesity take a toll on children’s cognition, growth, development and future success, so we need policies to address the two together. Congress is weighing reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which would do just that — but time is running out. Representatives in both chambers need pressure to pass this crucial legislation for children and the country.
As is so often the case when it comes to our children, we will get back what we put in. Giving children junk and deprivation won’t build healthy, thriving adults. Nourishing sustenance will. Job one for Texas is feeding our future well.