Over the past year, we have seen many efforts from both the public and private sectors to address America’s childhood obesity crisis.
Millions of families in rural, suburban and urban communities across the United States continue to face serious barriers to living healthier lives. Nowhere is this crisis more pronounced than in low-income communities of color.
The severity of racial, ethnic and regional disparities in obesity rates is alarming. Recently, Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) released “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010,” which examines the national rise in obesity and related diseases. The report’s findings show that low-income families and people of color are at a much higher risk for obesity and becoming overweight.
Across the country, more than 35 percent of African-American children and nearly 40 percent of Latino children are obese or overweight, compared with about 29 percent of White children. And one in every two African-American and Latina girls are at risk of developing diabetes during their lifetimes—a far higher percentage than White girls.
Strikingly, the link between race, poverty and obesity is most acute in the South, our nation’s most impoverished region. In Mississippi, which has an African-American population of more than 37 percent and is the poorest state in the country, the obesity rate is the highest of any state, as is the proportion of obese children ages 10-17.
These statistics are startling.
Clearly, as the report illustrates, where we live, learn, work and play has absolutely everything to do with how we live. Low-income families of color are too often disconnected from the very amenities conducive to leading healthier lives, such as clean air, safe parks, grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables, and affordable, reliable transportation options that offer access to those parks and supermarkets. This is why the childhood obesity epidemic—along with other health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease—are often most severe for low-income people of color. Enough is enough.
If we’re going to close this gap, we must work urgently and focus on where obesity rates are the highest. We must begin to invest in communities of opportunity that make it possible for all people to thrive, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. And we must all become policy advocates and push for the kinds of environments that our children need to live stronger, longer and healthier lives.
Today, more than 40 percent of Americans under the age of 18 are people of color. By 2050, communities of color are slated to become the majority group in America. The continued economic vitality of our nation will depend on their contributions, and they must be healthy enough to lead.
The time to begin improving the communities where people of color live is now. Our children’s future depends on it.
Angela Glover Blackwell is the principal advisor and chair of the National Advisory Board, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity. She is also the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute.