By Amélie Ramirez and Maisha Simmons
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on children in ways we can’t even fully understand – from the uncertainties of distance learning and social isolation to the economic and health challenges that put their families on hard test. Today, this toll on the health and well-being of children is becoming evident.
Childhood obesity is one facet of this, and new data shows this urgent health threat in New Jersey, especially among children of color. The state’s obesity rate among 10 to 17 year olds is 13.8%. New Jersey is doing better than most states; even so, too many young people are still at increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. The health problems of today’s children risk becoming burdens as they grow older.
Black and brown youth in New Jersey fare even worse than white children – disparities that mirror what we see nationally. Children of color and children who grow up furthest from economic opportunity have always been at greatest risk for obesity.
It is an indictment against our society, not against children or their families.
Systemic factors like insufficient access to healthy food, stagnant incomes and lack of access to health care all contribute to childhood obesity. In New Jersey and across the country, many of these factors are rooted in generations of structural racism – unfair treatment embedded in policies, laws and practices. This is evident in housing, education, employment, income, access to credit and health care. Every system that touches and shapes our lives creates these impacts. These patterns and practices reinforce discriminatory beliefs, values and resource allocation. All of this, in turn, affects the health of children and their families.
Imagine growing up in a community without stores that sell healthy, affordable food. This challenge was compounded during the pandemic, as food insecurity increased and too many families were forced to resort to less healthy meals for their families, which can contribute to childhood obesity. Also imagine that the neighborhood does not offer children safe places to play, or even clean air to breathe. The parent or caregiver works hard, but their working hours are unpredictable and they are not even paid enough to cover basic necessities. Their job does not offer health insurance, so if a family member becomes ill, a difficult situation suddenly becomes impossible.
We have seen these impacts not only in long-term trends in childhood obesity rates, but throughout the pandemic, where deep inequalities have hurt some communities more than others. Here in New Jersey, for example, black and Latino residents are overrepresented in hospitalizations related to COVID-19. The economic and health impacts throughout the pandemic have weighed disproportionately on communities of color.
Several studies have begun to document an increase in obesity rates in children during the pandemic. A study in the Philadelphia area found that obesity rates increased the most in children aged 5 to 9 and the most in black and Latino children. This is likely due to the fact that the pandemic upset so many of the systems that support our lives – systems that did not adequately support black and brown children equitably even before the pandemic.
Solving these systemic and interconnected problems requires changing the policies and systems that shape them. In a new report, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation offers some key recommendations to help all children grow up healthy:
Make universal school meals permanent and provide resources so that every child has a constant source of healthy meals. School meals have become much healthier over the past decade. Policy changes in the era of the pandemic have meant more children are receiving meals. We need to keep these changes in place so that every child has access to healthy food in school.
Extend WIC eligibility to postpartum mothers for the first two years after a baby is born and to children up to age 6. More than 130,000 people participated in WIC in New Jersey in 2019, and the obesity rate among New Jersey children attending WIC declined significantly between 2010 and 2018.
Expand and expand other programs that lift families out of poverty and reduce food insecurity, such as the expanded child tax credit. Families began receiving expanded child tax credit payments this summer. After only the first month of payments, the percentage of families with children reporting that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat decreased significantly.
Develop a consistent approach to collect timely data on obesity rates, including data organized by race, ethnicity and income level. We cannot change what we cannot or do not measure. Some data on obesity rates by race and ethnicity are available, but not enough. Being able to track rates and changes over time among different groups in New Jersey would help ensure that our strategies are based on equity.
We know what needs to happen for New Jersey children and families to be healthier. If we are serious about ushering in equity and opportunity, we cannot waste another day.
Amélie Ramirez is the director of Salud America !, a national Latino-focused organization based in San Antonio Health UT.
Maisha Simmons is Director of New Jersey Grantmaking at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, New Jersey’s largest philanthropy and the nation’s largest focused on health.
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