More children are overweight in Illinois than the majority of children in the United States. Lack of physical education in schools, high rates of poverty and scarce access to healthy foods may be at the heart of Illinois' childhood obesity problem, experts says.
Many parents see overweight children as a personal issue or a lack of self-control. But the issue of obesity "goes way beyond personal choice," according to Dr. Adam Becker, director of Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. Parents and communities must recognize poor habits if the state's obesity rates are going to drop, he says.
Lack of physical education
Even though the Illinois State Board of Education mandates physical education every day for school-age children kindergarten through 12th grade, some schools in Illinois do not enforce the rule. In the Chicago Public School system, for example, most children attend gym class only once per week. In the suburbs, physical education in schools varies widely.
Many schools have applied for a physical education waiver. A waiver legally allows a school or school district to restrict or eliminate the amount of physical education. The rationale for waivers varies from a lack of funding, unsuitable facilities or a decline in academic achievement. Through the efforts of the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance waivers to eliminate or reduce physical education by school districts was reduced to a maximum of six years.
Socioeconomic factors place certain children at greater risk for obesity as well. According to Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, childhood obesity rates are highest in poor communities of color. CLOCC reports that in neighborhoods with high black and Hispanic populations, such as Humboldt Park, the rates of obesity are higher than 40 percent. In Norwood Park, a predominantly white neighborhood, the obesity rate is below 10 percent.
Black and Hispanic obesity rates are increasing faster than that of whites. David Shoham, assistant professor of Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology at the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University, says that as poverty levels increase, so does the percent of overweight and obese individuals.
Minorities living in poorer communities also have less access to
healthy foods and may find themselves in a "food desert." Food
deserts are communities, such as Maywood, where no major grocery
store is available to buy healthy foods.
Instead people in these communities are forced to buy canned and processed foods, which are less healthy and contain more calories than fresh fruits and vegetables. In June, the Illinois General Assembly approved $10 million for the Illinois Fresh Food Fund, which would stimulate supermarket development in underserved areas across the state.
In some neighborhoods children do not play outside due to safety concerns. Some parents are even reluctant to take children to parks in Chicago because of increased crime, violence and traffic.
Janelle Lanter Brown is a freelance writer, an online contributor at examiner.com and an English teacher at Harper College.