Thursday, December 8, 2005
There is no getting around the fact that our kids are just too fat. A new study confirms what we’ve been told, over and over again: Monterey County’s children and teens are overweight. And if we don’t make major changes at the policy level—such as creating communities where kids can walk to school, or to the park, or to the grocery store—our kids are going to get fatter. And then they’re going to get sick—diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease attack overweight kids in increasing numbers. And trying to make them healthy again is going to cost taxpayers a lot of money.
According to “Where Do We Stand?” a study by the ACTION Council of Monterey County, almost 23 percent of local young people between the ages of 5 and 19 are overweight. Another 20 percent are “at-risk” for obesity. The prevalence of obesity in Monterey County is greater than in either the state as a whole or the US.
The ACTION Council will release its report on Dec. 13 at a Salinas elementary school cafeteria. At the event, various agencies and coalitions—including Salinas Steps to Health, the Monterey County Health Consortium and the Farm to School Partnership—will talk about their programs. ACTION Council Executive Director Ricki Mazzullo acknowledges that there have aleady been many news stories about the growing problem of childhood obesity.
“Our intent was simply to compile all of the available data on childhood obesity in Monterey County in one document,” she says. “There are lots of different studies but they hadn’t been complied.”
But will anyone use the data to start fixing the problem? That remains to be seen.
“I’m not sure that we as an organization can make sure that something happens next,” Mazzullo says. “We’ve participated in a number of studies, and one of the problems we encounter is the frustration that everybody wants the data, and then when they have the data, they don’t use it. It’s another report that sits on the shelf.”
Tuesday’s event will be a “starting point,” Mazzullo says.
Then, it will be up to local policy makers—largely, our local politicians—to take action, or to continue business as usual and approve more sprawling subdivisions and the like.
The report points to an interesting paradox. Kids in Monterey County do seem to be changing individual behaviors. Local kids are, in fact, eating more fruits and vegetables, exercising more and reporting improved levels of physical fitness.
Yet obesity rates continue to grow.
“Something else needs to change for the problem to diminish,” Mazzullo says.
Dealing with obesity requires a change in community and environmental factors, not just a change in individual behavior.
“The built environment has a huge impact, and that’s one of the things that’s not really being discussed in the obesity epidemic,” says Research Coordinator Larry Imwalle.
The report quotes Richard Jackson, a physician and former California state public health officer: “Since the 1950s, community development patterns in the US have centered around our cars, causing us to spend more time driving and less time walking. We have built an environment with tremendous obstacles to physical activity, seemingly doing everything we can to discourage healthy living, and creating an epidemic of obesity, type-II diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and other serious health problems.”
Small things like sidewalks leading to stores, schools and parks can make a big difference.
In Monterey County, there are additional problems. It’s expensive to live here, and wages for most workers in our two biggest industries—agriculture and hospitality—are low. So people often work more than one job to make a living.
Plus, there’s not a lot of low-income housing, and it’s rarely located near workers’ jobs—so people spend more time in cars.
“People are losing two hours by car because of where they live and work,” Mazzullo says. “They don’t have time to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables. They don’t even have time to cook.”
The report encourages city and county officials to build affordable housing near jobs, “complete streets” with sidewalks, and safe road access for pedestrians, bicycles and wheelchairs. They are also encouraged to adopt land-use policies that promote mixed-use, walkable communities.
The report also acknowledges that in some areas of the county, it’s dangerous for kids to play outside, or ride bikes in their own neighborhoods.
A little over a year ago, the city of Salinas released a pedestrian plan, envisioned as a way to implement the smart-growth policies in the city’s general plan.
“We’ve continued installing new pedestrian access ramps throughout the city,” says James Serrano, the city’s assistant transportation planner, “And we’ve also installed a traffic signal at North Sanborn and Kimmel Street, for kids crossing.”
The City’s also installed a couple of lighted crosswalks, and made some repairs to sidewalks.
“But we’re moving very slowly because of the budget challenge we’re in,” Serrano says. “We’re looking forward to traffic calming and a pedestrian safety program. But we need to find funding.”
Mazzullo says she doesn’t know what—if anything—other municipalities are doing to prevent obesity through community planning.
“I don’t even know if, at the local level, people are even aware of it being an issue,” she says.
Marina officials are currently developing a bicycle and pedestrian plan, similar to Salinas’, which will connect neighborhoods, parks and schools through walkable pathways.
“On another topic, we’re allowing mixed-uses in the downtown core,” says Elizabeth Caraker, a Marina contract planner. “So you can walk to the store and possibly to work.”
It’s expensive to build new communities or change existing ones.
But obesity—and its related health problems—cost a lot or money, too.
According to the state Department of Health Services, obesity costs Californians $28 billion annually in lost productivity and increased health care costs.
“There’s always the cry of how much it will cost to change the way we design communities or change the way people live,” Mazzullo says. “The fact is, it’s only going to cost more if change isn’t made.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE OBESITY REPORT, CALL 783-1244.
Percentage of California voters who feel things in the
state are generally going in the wrong direction.