Ending Hunger and Childhood Obesity
By Maria Rita Jaramillo
Latino children are the youngest and fastest growing population in the nation. In the southwestern states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, they already make up more than 50 percent of children in public schools. By 2020, the Latino teen population is projected to increase by 62 percent, compared to 10 percent for the overall U.S. population. Investing in this large segment of the U. S. population is critical to America’s continued growth and prosperity.
Yet Latinos are disproportionately affected by high rates of hunger, and at the same time are experiencing record rates of childhood obesity. The U. S. Department of Agriculture reports that food insecurity rates among Hispanic households were substantially higher than the national average. The rate of food insecurity for Hispanics was 26.9 percent while the national average rate was 14.7 percent.
For children, the rates are even more severe. Nearly 32 percent of Latino children felt the pangs of food insecurity and as a result, poor families turn to inexpensive, high calorie foods for their nourishment and to stretch their food budgets.
Hunger’s root cause is poverty. If we want to address hunger, we must also address poverty. In 2009, poverty was at its highest level for Latino children since 1997. 33.1 percent of Hispanic children were below 100 percent of the poverty line compared to 11.9 percent of white children.
Contributing to hunger and childhood obesity among Latino families is the lack of access to healthy food choices like fresh fruits and vegetables. They are less likely than non-Hispanic white families to live in neighborhoods where healthy foods are available and sold at affordable prices. The lack of green space for playgrounds and high crime in poor communities creates unsafe neighborhoods exacerbating the issue even more, and preventing many young Latinos from enjoying an active, healthy life style.
For more than 17 years, the National Latino Children’s Institute (NLCI) has been the voice for Latino children. Its mission is to focus the nation’s attention on the contributions and complex set of interconnected issues facing young Latinos. Ending hunger and childhood obesity is central to NLCI’s public policy agenda.
Are the needs of Latino children different than for other children? The answer is yes and no. Our friends at America’s Promise contend that youngsters need certain conditions to achieve adult success, including: 1) the assistance and guidance of a caring adult, 2) a healthy start including prenatal care, 3) access to quality health care, 4) an effective education, and 5) opportunities to help others regardless of their own life circumstances. They further contend, that when at least, four of these promises are at work in young people’s lives, they are more likely to succeed academically, socially and civically. NLCI agrees and supports this premise.
In addition to these conditions, we believe that Latino children, face additional hurdles. Too many Latino families live in poverty with high unemployment rates. They attend underfunded schools in unsafe neighborhoods, and where their home language and culture may not be honored. Lastly, these children may have the added stress of knowing that one or both of their parents could be deported due to their immigration status. These interconnected issues make up the principals of the NLCI National Latino Children’s Agenda.
Working with various public and private entities, NLCI has developed award-winning programs that address hunger and childhood obesity. More than ten years ago, NLCI collaborated with Kraft Foods to develop Salsa Sabor y Salud, a healthy lifestyle program to reduce and prevent childhood obesity. Most recently, NLCI teamed up with Walmart and the YMCA USA organizations to expand the program to various regions of the country. Since its inception, NLCI’s Salsa Sabor y Salud curriculum has reached thousands of families across the country. It would have been impossible for NLCI to reach these families without the assistance of its corporate partners. By leveraging our resources, we have provided these families with strategies to curve hunger and live healthy lifestyles.
The success of NLCI programs and campaigns can be attributed to the following unique factors: 1) the curriculum is bilingual (English and Spanish), 2) the culture and traditions of the Latino community are embedded into the curriculum, and 3) the programs are developed in collaboration with the community.
NLCI and its local partners have also informed the public policy debate regarding hunger and childhood obesity. A trusted and established entity in the Latino community, NLCI has been able to reach families in need and remove the confusion and complexity of the application process for food assistance programs, and the stigma associated with asking for help.
More needs to be done to eradicate hunger and childhood obesity in the Latino community. NLCI recommends the following:
- Increasing public/private partnerships to develop bilingual programs that utilize Latino culture and traditions to reach Latino families.
- Investing in outreach and education projects for eligible populations with low participation rates, including the elderly, low-income working households, and immigrant households.
- Simplifying the application and eligibility processes by utilizing pre-screening tools.
- Reassessing eligibility criteria that prohibits legal immigrants from accessing federal and state food programs.
Why is it important to solve this challenge? Latino children are strategically positioned to lead America in the future. They are bilingual and bicultural and have demonstrated an ability to adapt to our changing world. With our help today, they will lead America tomorrow. They are America’s promise for a bright future, un futuro brillante!
Maria Rita Jaramillo is Board Chair of the National Latino Children’s Institute
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