Fighting childhood obesity
The “state of being without reliable access to sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food”—this is what the United States Department of Agriculture defines as “food insecurity.” In the Rochester and Finger Lakes region, twelve percent of the population—and one out of five children—is considered food insecure.
Dr. Stephen Cook of the University of Rochester Medical Center is a recognized food insecurity and childhood obesity researcher and also sees patients as part of the general pediatric practice of Strong Memorial Hospital.
Cook, who has been at URMC since 2001, says that tackling childhood obesity is crucial for public health and preventive care in Rochester, as it is a chronic and common condition affecting children and adolescents. “Among kids who have obesity, a good majority of them, ninety-eight percent, are going to go on to be obese adults,” Cook says. “If we can treat those kids,and improve eating habits at a family level…you can have an impact on the parent and the child and start reversing these patterns earlier on in life. They maintain a healthier status over time.”
Cook stresses that tackling food insecurity at all levels is a multipronged effort that calls for an appropriate mix of programs, policy, and system changes that will allow at-risk individuals to more easily lead healthy lives.
Foodlink, the Rochester and Finger Lakes region food bank with a ten-county service area and client base of more than 200,000 individuals, is moving itself “beyond traditional food banking”—think food drives and canned goods—according to director of programs and innovation, Mitch Gruber. “As nutrition has started to receive more attention in conversation about public health, Foodlink has increasingly found ourselves at the table with medical and healthcare professionals,” he says. “Individuals like [Cook] have been incredibly important allies, ensuring that providers work with patients to address issues like hunger and childhood obesity.”
Foodlink’s community programs increase accessibility of healthy, local food to “historically underserved individuals and institutions,” according to Gruber, and tie in directly with the efforts of health practitioners in the region. Curbside Market, a farmers’ market truck, stops at places like Jordan Health Centers and Rochester Housing Authority sites to sell affordable produce. Nutrition education programming like the six-week Cooking Matters for groups including adults, kids, teenagers, and families, all provide high-quality, accessible information on healthful eating.
And the organization receives support from URMC: Fourth-year medical students add capacity to programs through staff support and data collection and analysis while gaining exposure to issues and solutions to food insecurity in the city.
Dina Faticone is the director of Healthi Kids of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency and Greater Rochester Health Foundation. Healthi Kids is a community coalition made of individuals hoping to “raise a generation of healthier, more active kids in the city of Rochester,” according to Faticone, who adds, “We must do better for all groups, not just some, and that starts with the policies and environment that our kids are growing up in.”
The coalition advocates for public policy, practice, and environmental changes to support healthy communities. The five-policy agenda of Healthi Kids includes better school food, safer play areas, at least sixty minutes of in-school physical activity per day, food standards in childcare settings, and policies that support breastfeeding.
“More and more our strategies are moving beyond being kid-focused to supporting the health of the whole population so that kids and their families have the ability to achieve the best possible outcomes in life,” Faticone says.
Cook believes that the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, with a vision of eliminating poverty and ensuring that every child lives in a stable family environment of economic mobility, ties directly into food insecurity and hunger, with the health and nutrition group being a “key driver.”
Gruber says of the initiative, “Everybody eats. Everybody spends money on food. Diet informs health. These are all reasons why food has to be part of any conversation about anti-poverty efforts.”
Cook recently reviewed a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics titled “Promoting Food Security for All Children” that recommends screening patients for food insecurity, incorporating education about food insecurity into medical school programs, advocating for food assistance programs, and becoming familiar with community resources for patients.
It’s a recommendation, Cook says, that “only reinforces” where his practice and organizations throughout Rochester focus their efforts toward improving food insecurity and decreasing childhood obesity.
Food insecurity, the AAP report reiterates, “is a dynamic, intensely complex issue. Families and children do not only feel the effects of hunger just as missed or meager meals; food insecurity manifests itself in many other biophysical outcomes, including health, education, and economic prosperity.”
Maddy Smith is a Rochester-based freelance writer.