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In The Bank

Posted on Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Our speaker series wraps up Hunger Action Month.

Many are surprised to learn that hunger and obesity often co-exist in the same individual, family, or community.  Poverty can make more people succeptable to obesity as well as to hunger. The tight budgets faced by low-income houses (due to inadequate wages, under- or unemployment, recent job loss, illness, or other hardships), often lead to hunger.  More than 108,000 individuals in Western Massachusetts are food-insecure, leaving them vulnerable to the pains of hunger every day. Obesity is an epidemic faced by Americans of all income levels. Due to sedintary lifestyles, limited physical education in schools, and an abundance of cheap and tempting high-calorie foods, our nation’s diet and physical activity profile is far from optimal for maintaining healthy and manageable weight.  But because of other risk factors, low-income individuals are especially succeptable to obesity. Low-income neighborhoods are underserved by full-service grocery stores and over-served by fast food restaurants and convenience stores stocked with foods high in starch and sugar.  When healthy foods are available, they are often more expensive than a non-healthy alternative. There are fewer opportunities for physical activities in neighborhoods and schools. And high levels of stress and limited access to health care can contribute to weight gain. Experts at this morning’s Hunger Action Month speaker series addressed these and other factors as they discussed how obesity affects individuals and families in Western Mass., the state, and the nation; how obesity is connected to food insecurity; and what we can do about it. Dr. Chrystal Whittcopp leads the Pediatric Weight Management Program at Baystate Children’s Hospital.  There, she is in contact with hundreds of families with children who struggle with obesity.  And according to her, though it’s a disease people of all income-levels are susceptible to, those with low incomes are especially susceptible to obesity as well as to food insecurity. During her presentation, Dr. Whittcopp displayed two maps of the city of Springfield, one that illustrated income levels, and the other that showed obesity rates.  It was clear that, for the most part, obesity occurred at a much higher rate in the areas of the city that are home to those who earn less than in other areas.  She also revealed that 44 percent of Springfield school students are overweight.  that number increases to 46 percent in Holyoke.  These numbers are higher than the state average of 36 percent. Much of this has to do with the high availability and affordability of junk foods when compared to healthier foods.  Over time, said DR. Whittcopp, the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has risen, while the cost of high fat and high sugar items, like chips and soda, has gone down.  Combine this with limited food access, and the formula for obesity is built.  All it takes is one unhealthy snack each day, like a bag of chips or a hotdog, to lead to obesity. Fortunately, replacing these unhealthy options with snacks of fruits or veggies, and increasing physical activity are proven ways to prevent and cure obesity.  Valerie Basset, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, works to improve the health of all residents of Mass. through strong public health and prevention policy.  This policy has its roots in local and state government, but, as Bassett pointed out, it doesn’t end there.  Each of us has the power to influence our elected officials. By calling your elected official, you can support five ways that policy can support greater public health in Mass.  By advocating for healthy zoning, increasing physical education in schools, improving access to healthy food stores, and ensuring healthy school food for every child, we can make steps towards ensuring a healthier state, and healthier future.

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