People generally know that fruits are good, veggies are good and specific fats and sugar are bad, researchers say.
But health advocates say they still struggle to compete with the advertising arsenals of fast food companies who specifically target to younger, lower income and more diverse populations.
“It’s not about educating people about knowing what healthy foods is,” said Susana Ramirez, an obesity researcher and associate professor of public health at the UC Merced. “It’s about how do we empower people to feel like they can make a difference in local governing organizations, zoning laws, and other things to get that grocery store with fresh produce closer to their homes.”
In other words, it’s about political action, not more awareness on which diet is best for you.
That includes more advocacy for things like safer bike paths and parks, fewer convenience stores and more healthy whole food options and a greater emphasis on dietary needs, Ramirez said.
Merced County has some pretty grim statistics on childhood obesity. Almost half of elementary and middle school-aged children are either overweight or obese.
Merced County is often considered part of the “breadbasket” or “salad bowl” of the nation due to the dominance of the agriculture industry. But much of those fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the Central Valley don’t make it on the dinner plates of the lower income Merced County residents, Ramirez said.
But because childhood obesity is a condition depending on many factors, some are taking simplified but powerful approaches to the problem.
“Poverty is at the center of the obesity problem,” Assemblymember Adam Gray said. “We need good living wage jobs.”
The Merced unemployment rate in April was 9 percent, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. National unemployment was at 3.6 percent in April.
Poverty manifests itself in many forms in Merced County, Gray said, including the fact that more than half of residents are on MediCal and that it has one of the lowest doctors to patient ratios in the state.
“When people are poor, they don’t have access to healthy foods, to eat well,” Gray said. “The other issue is the cost of living.”
While the Central Valley has lower housing prices than the Bay Area and other coastal regions, the lack of available housing and costs of energy consumption in the area make it harder on the region, he said.
Poor access to preschool, poor medical infrastructure and crime rates also contribute to the obesity epidemic, Gray said.
“If you solve the job problem, it helps fix the obesity problem as well,” he said.
That’s why he has been pushing for expansion of the UC Merced and the jobs it could bring to a region that has been hurt by job loss since the closing of the air force base at Castle.
There are also efforts to bring a medical school to the Central Valley through a partnership with the University of California system.
“There are bright spots, like the FQHC,” Gray said, talking about federally qualified healthcare centers like Golden Valley Health Center and the VIPER program, a law enforcement program aimed to curb gang violence and provide at-risk youth intervention.
The City of Merced has taken several steps in recent years to curb childhood obesity, city officials said.
The City Council has changed its zoning ordinance to allow community gardens throughout the city. Zoning ordinances also have changed on properties in South Merced at three different sites for grocery stores that would provide more healthy food choices, according to a city statement.
City Councilmember Fernando Echevarria said he would like healthy tacos from taco trucks and taquerias to replace residents’ reliance on fast food.
“I think the city definitely plays a part in it,” Echevarria said, adding that efforts to promote more gardening and permitting residents to use more water to maintain sustainable whole-food gardening without additional costs are in the works.
An analysis of nutritional data from the Merced City School District showed that high sugar and low fiber content of the most popular items for breakfast and lunch meals provided to low income students may be contributing to childhood obesity rates, despite the district following USDA guidelines to healthy meals for kids.
The added and quickly absorbed sugars in nonfat chocolate milk and 100 percent fruit juice are making up 44 percent of students’ average sugar intake, together taking up more than half of the added sugar intake health organization recommend for kids between 2 and 18 years old.
USDA guidelines require school districts to provide two milk options to kids. And the fruit juice is considered half the fruit intake students are required to take in the Merced school district, in accordance with USDA standards.
But while USDA guidelines may restrict school districts’ flexibility to provide healthier options, another school district in the state may be navigating the waters to become role model for healthier meals.
The Mt. Diablo School District in Contra Costa County has made several changes to serve healthier options to students, according to obesity researchers.
“It’s about getting rid of the processed foods,” said Dominic Machi, director of food services for the Mt. Diablo district.
“When I got here about two years ago, I saw a lot of prepackaged food served to students, sugary drinks,” Machi said. “We changed that. And we started a lot of scratch cooking.”
Mt. Diablo is close to being the first school lunch program certified by Eat REAL, a nonprofit organization that awards food servicers for following whole food-based standards.
Instead of fruit juice, the Mt. Diablo emphasizes fruits in different forms, such as a fruit and cheese plate meal.
But it isn’t always comfortable testing the boundaries of what students will eat, and what the USDA will allow.
“We’re not really allowed all the time to go off to some plant-based products,” Machi said. “We’ve been serving the pepperoni pizza. But we’ve been working with (whole food health experts) to make it based on whole foods.”
Merced City School District officials expressed concern over limiting fruit juice consumption over fears students may not eat whole fruits and get their necessary nutrients.
But the changes have worked for Mt. Diablo, which like Merced, tests its products with students before making big changes from processed and sugar-filled foods to whole, natural options.
This series on child obesity in Merced County was reported in partnership with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Data Fellowship. You can learn more about the fellowship program at https://www.centerforhealthjournalism.org/event/2018-data-fellowship.