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Why are poor kids in Maine hungry and overweight?

Why are poor kids in Maine hungry and overweight?

Picture of Patricia Wight

The basics of nutrition seem simple. Author Michael Pollan whittled it down to just six words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But add in other life factors — a poverty-level income, a kitchen without a stove, or a run-down car that can get about as far as the local convenience store to buy groceries, and it soon gets complicated.

According to the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality, one in three Maine children are overweight. This troubling statistic is further compounded by the link between poverty and malnutrition. The most recent information from the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health finds that 50 percent of Maine children ages 10 to 17 living in poverty are obese. If you ratchet household income level up one notch to ‘low-income,’ the rate drops to 30 percent. Clearly, the lower the income level of a child’s household, the more nutrition is a significant health issue.

There are many programs to address this issue in Maine. One – called ‘Let’s Go!’ – boils its message for proper nutrition and health down to four numbers: ‘5-2-1-0.’ In other words, eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, limit screen time to two hours or less, spend at least one hour doing physical activity, and consume zero sugary drinks. Over the past decade, the program has spread from doctors’ offices to workplaces, child-care centers and schools, where kids learn to sing the program’s 5-2-1-0 message and cafeterias use ‘Smarter Lunchroom’ techniques to encourage healthier choices. Let’s Go! has been nationally recognized for its efforts to prevent obesity.

Other programs in Maine teach low-income families to cook healthy meals on a limited budget, and connect farmers to food pantries. But despite the strides made by the myriad of programs in Maine, malnutrition and food insecurity remain a persistent issue. The state ranks first in New England for food insecurity. Only 40 percent of Maine children eligible for free or reduced school breakfast programs participate. About 60 percent of children who qualify for free or reduced school lunch take advantage of those meals.

What prevents impoverished Maine families from using these programs’ seemingly straightforward strategies and opportunities? What food choices are available to children in poverty at home, school, and their community? How do mental health, poverty, and malnutrition affect each other? What are the challenges that health care providers, schools, and community groups face in successfully teaching sustainable healthy habits?

These are the questions I will answer in my National Health Journalism Fellowship reporting project for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. Each story will focus on an issue and a family that is struggling to overcome it. Delving into a family’s experience will give a deeper insight and understanding into what challenges poor families face when it comes to health and nutrition, and what might be done to overcome them.

[Photo by Richard via Flickr.]

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