Obesity comes early in Nash and Edgecombe counties: 29 percent of young children in the two North Carolina jurisdictions are obese or overweight before kindergarten.
It’s an extremely troubling pattern and one that only gets far worse with age. Among men and women here, nearly three out of every four are obese or overweight. The adult rate places Nash and Edgecombe among the top five heaviest counties in North Carolina.
Many people blame the area’s low wages and high unemployment (16 percent in Edgecombe in mid-2009), and a bad economy indeed makes eating healthy tougher. Yet even in better times, the White, African-American and, increasingly, Latino families who populate the small towns and poorer rural stretches in this eastern part of the state have limited access to nutritious food options and few recreational resources.
The Down East Partnership for Children hopes to tackle the problem by breaking the pattern, starting with the counties’ youngest residents. Backed by research pointing to ages 2 to 4 as a critical period for prevention and intervention, the organization and key allies launched a Healthy Kids Collaborative to help influence children’s eating habits and activity levels in their early years.
The collaborative is focusing on reducing obesity so that all youngsters can start kindergarten healthy and ready to learn and succeed. It will use funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities to continue targeting its pre-school demographic, in part by working with child-care providers so that they only serve healthy food and allow plenty of time for energetic play.
“With so many single parents working long hours or overnight shifts, many of our children end up eating two meals a day while at child care. We have to work with both the parent and the provider to have a real impact,’ said Henrietta Zalkind, the partnership’s executive director.
Medical providers also will be included in the effort because of their role educating parents about the diet and physical activity young children need, especially children at risk of obesity. Some physicians already are members of the collaborative, along with local health agencies, school systems and park departments, the state cooperative extension service and the chamber of commerce in the city of Rocky Mount, which straddles the counties’ shared border.
The collaborative wants to increase the availability of fruits and vegetables through subsidized food programs, farmers' markets and community gardens, as well as improve outdoor recreational spaces and create more parks and playgrounds that are safe, appealing and convenient. Many of the counties’ more than six dozen existing recreational areas are too broken down, unsafe or far away to entice children and families.
“While this community has many challenges,” Zalkind said, “we’re committed to making things better for parents and their children.”