Childhood obesity is a particularly difficult public health problem because if left unchecked, it will lead to many significant medical issues later in life.
Yet that is the very challenge facing Merced County today, as outlined by a series of stories by Sun-Star reporter Vikaas Shanker. Nearly half of the county’s elementary and middle school-age children are overweight or obese, according to data collected by the state.
Obesity increases the risk for diabetes, the serious disorder in which the body cannot process sugars properly. Left untreated, diabetes can cause heart and kidney problems, blindness and even feet amputation due to blood-circulation problems.
Other impacts from being severely overweight include heart disease, issues with sexual health, cardiovascular problems, anxiety and depression and social stigmas.
Lest this appear as a problem only affecting young people, only 22 percent of adults here had a healthy weight as of 2015, according to Merced County’s 2016 Community Health Assessment, the most recent data available. Nearly 80 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Both statistics are much worse than state and national averages.
The Merced City School District is trying hard to give students nutritional meals. But because it must follow federal guidelines to qualify for millions of dollars in necessary funding, one result is a daily intake of too much sugar. Shanker reports that the typical Merced student consumes 18 teaspoons of sugar in breakfast, lunch and snacks provided by the district. Much of that sugar comes from two drinks — chocolate milk and fruit juices. The recommended maximum sugar intake is six teaspoons daily.
The school meals are critical to Merced students. That’s because two of every three children in Merced County live in poverty, according to the health assessment. Poverty hinders a family’s ability to put food on the table, much less wholesome meals.
Another problem is access to a regular grocery store. Neighborhoods that don’t have supermarkets are said to exist in “food deserts.” Merced County has 13 such areas. One desert is south Merced. The part of town south of Highway 99 does not have a single grocery store with a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. The 26,000 or so people living there — almost a third of the city’s population — must go elsewhere for groceries.
County residents must be able to get reasonably priced fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This can be done with zoning and business encouragement by city and county leaders toward the goal of enticing supermarkets to open in a food desert.
The city has identified a parcel at Canal Street and West Childs Avenue for a grocery store. Now Merced needs a grocer willing to locate there. Besides that spot, the city has rezoned two other properties that will make it easier for a supermarket to open.
Another way to bring quality food to residents is through a farmers market. The county worked with Livingston city officials in 2017 to open a market there. In a survey gathered by the county, 61 percent of market participants say they are eating more fresh produce. Next up: south Merced. This simple, yet powerful, step should be replicated in other Merced County communities.
Merced city officials have created new zoning to establish community gardens. The first one opened in 2017 at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church on East Yosemite Avenue. Sixty beds are sprouting fresh produce.
County public health officials provide nutrition workshops in local communities every year, but the presentations reach only about 1,400 people. Expanding the outreach would benefit children and adults alike.
And the education effort needs to continue in the local schools. Besides teaching young people and their parents about proper eating habits, the district has set up water stations in cafeterias that dispense ice-cold water, as well as flavor stations where students can choose spices to liven up their meals.
Why is chocolate milk served? Because, under federal regulations, two types of milk must be offered. To complement the 1 percent low fat regular milk, the district determined nonfat chocolate milk was the next best option.
Rep. Jim Costa, the Fresno Democrat whose congressional district covers all of Merced County, should review the federal limitations. Perhaps he can get regulators to relax the rules and bring more flexibility to Merced City so it can try new approaches it deems worthy.
One 10-year-old who Shanker talked to attends Gracey Elementary School in south Merced and struggles with weight issues. Called Mario by Shanker to protect his real identity, the boy admitted he eats too much.
“When I run the mile, I get tired fast,” Mario said. “I sometimes see friends who are skinny, and I sometimes feel sad and overweight.”
No child should feel sad at the most carefree time of life; nor should any 10-year-old worry about being overweight. Merced school, city, county and federal leaders deserve credit for recognizing the childhood obesity crisis is real. Good efforts are under way, but more needs to be done to bring down worrisome numbers that will become adult problems if left unaddressed.