Sugar-sweetened drinks and street violence have contributed to a rise in childhood obesity across low-income areas of Contra Costa County, according to county health officials who worked closely on a statewide study released Wednesday.
The childhood obesity rate in Contra Costa rose to 33.85 percent, a 3.5-percent increase in half a decade, according to a five-year study conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. In the same time period California’s rate of childhood obesity dropped by one percent.
Harold Goldstein, a CCPHA public health doctor who worked on the study, said the epidemic will continue to hamper the long-term health and well-being of children and possibly make today’s generation of youth the first one in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
“The burden that this epidemic will have on individuals and the health system will be dramatic,” he said.
Tracey Rattray, the director of the county’s Community Wellness and Prevention Program, said sugary drinks such as soda and street violence in low-income areas have been linked with the epidemic in the county, especially among minority communities. And in many cases, Rattray said, the minority community is the low-income community.
“This isn’t a healthy environment,” she said. “It’s an outrageous way for low-income kids to live and not have the choices that they need to stay healthy.”
Sugar-sweetened beverages – which, on average, contain 16 teaspoons of sugar per 20-ounce drink – account for the single largest source of calories in a teen’s diet, Rattray said, saying that in some cities in the county, such as San Pablo, there is an average of nine places to buy sodas within a quarter mile of each of the city’s schools. The report also showed that more than 78 percent of San Pablo’s population lives within 500 feet of a business that sells sugary beverages.
According the study, the ratio of unhealthy food outlets in Richmond — defined as convenience stores and fast food restaurants — to healthy food outlets — produce markets, farmers’ markets, and supermarkets — is more than 6-to-1 – greater than the 4-to-1 state ratio.
Rattray said obese children run a greater risk of developing diabetes later in life, and the county can expect to see the rate of people with chronic illnesses increase in the future if the childhood obesity numbers aren’t reduced.
The high rate of street violence in some communities has also played a large role in the obesity increase, Rattray said, causing children and parents of children to prefer indoor activities because they are viewed as being safer.
“Kids aren’t playing outside and running around, because it doesn’t feel safe,” she said. “That kind of exercise is missing from a lot of kids’ lives. It’s safer to stay home and watch TV.”
Goldstein said there is a correlation between outdoor activity and safety concerns, but communities can find a way around the issue by passing the so-called “soda tax,” a measure that could help fund recreation programs from sales tax collected on soda purchases.
Richmond City Council member Jeff Ritterman, who has led efforts to introduce such a measure in Richmond, said the estimated $4 million in revenue the tax would bring in could go toward funding sports facilities for children. Ritterman said the City Council will meet in early December to decide whether to place the soda tax as a ballot measure for next year’s elections.
Goldstein said the one-percent drop in childhood obesity across the state shows the epidemic can be curbed through community supported programs aimed at serving healthier food at schools and keeping children physically active, and that the soda-tax funds would help sustain such efforts.
“The decision to tax soda will go a long way when people understand that, like tobacco, it’s doing a lot of damage to our health and the health of our kids,” Goldstein said.
Rattray said she has seen a demand in the county for more physical activities for children.
“There is a demand in the community to decrease street violence and to make parks safer for kids to play in and the streets safer for kids to walk and bike to school,” she said. “So we hear that loud and clear.”