Communities with low income are faced with climbing rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases. In fact, some authorities state that this may be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than its parents. At the root of this trend are the problems of inadequate nutrition, inactivity, and poor environmental quality. These problems have a lasting impact on student health, school attendance and performance, and cognitive development.
The Problem of Inadequate Nutrition
Hunger and inadequate nutrition contribute to increased risks of chronic disease and are related to lack of attentiveness and poor school performance. In addition, undernutrition along with poverty and a lack of environmental stimulation can permanently retard physical growth, brain development, and cognitive functioning. (1, 2, 3)
- Approximately 45% of youth ages 9 – 14 are overweight or at risk of overweight, with the highest prevalence occurring among Native American, Hispanic, and African American youths.
- Anemia is twice as high among African American children compared to White children.
- Poor nutrition and inactivity puts children at greater risk of developing “adult diseases” such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
- Eating trends among youth 9-14 years include fewer fruits, vegetables, and dairy products and frequent consumption of foods and beverages high in fat and sugar and low in nutrients.
- Many youth skip meals, especially breakfast.
- Many youth prepare their own food, usually with inexpensive quick- to-prepare, high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar, prepackaged ingredients.
- As youth get older, the number of meals with family decreases.
Although these findings are discouraging, research demonstrates that these effects are reversible by a combination of education, adequate food intake, and environmental support (1).
The Problem of Inactivity
Physical inactivity is an important contributor to obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases and comparisons have shown a correlation between physical activity and student school performance. Although California students tend to be more active than students in other states, the California Physical Fitness Test indicates there is room for improvement, 29% to 35% of California students did not achieve the Healthy Fitness Zone for all six categories of fitness.
- Regular physical activity reduces feelings of depression and anxiety; helps to control weight; helps to maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints; and promotes feelings of well-being.
- Physical activity programs have positive effects on academic achievement, including increased concentration, improved mathematics, reading, and writing test scores.
- More than half of California youth (62%) meet the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day, however studies also show that physical inactivity is higher in low-income communities.
- 66% of all teen boys achieve at least one hour of activity compared to 56% of teen girls.
- Youth in low-income communities are significantly less likely to exercise for an hour.
- African American teens report significantly more television viewing time than White and Latino teens
When children’s basic nutritional and fitness needs are met, they attain higher achievement levels. Schools and communities are essential to help students learn and practice the skills needed to become active for life.
The Problem of Poor Environmental Quality
Providing a clean school and home environment for learning are as critical to student health and achievement as providing access to food and activity. The products and compounds we use everyday for cleaning, painting, and building in classrooms and homes can impact respiratory health, risk of asthma, chronic disease; and therefore student attendance and learning.
- Minorities and low-income communities often face higher exposure to environmental hazards by being subjected to harmful chemicals in poorly built and maintained housing, or through exposure to pesticides in food and school yards.
- Building materials such as particleboard, insulation, carpet adhesives, and other products emit formaldehyde that can cause nausea and respiratory problems, eye irritation, and inflamed skin.
- Poor ventilation, upholstery, paint, carpets, and cleaning products can contain hazardous compounds that further contribute to poor respiratory health and possibly cancer.
- Food access in low-income communities can be limited by lack of fresh, good quality food, especially fruits and vegetables. When neighborhood markets are accessible, food quality may be poor and frequently there are no choices between traditionally and organically grown foods. The risk of increasing pesticide exposure can pose new problems of toxicity especially among children. Consumer Reports cited that children and adult consumers can still easily consume more than 30 pesticides daily when eating a variety of foods, and that an organic diet can provide an immediate protective effect against such pesticide exposure (16).
When students and families learn simple changes to create their own cleaner, greener learning and living environment they reduce their exposure to toxic compounds and create an essential partnership for a healthier, greener, less polluted future.