Food deserts in Houston lead to high childhood obesity rates

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Local and statewide officials in the Greater Houston area are working to reduce childhood obesity—a condition that could add billions to health care costs and affect the health of this generation of children as they become adults.

About 34 percent of children 12 or older are considered at an unhealthy weight in the Greater Houston area, according to a survey by the University of Texas Public Health.

The high obesity rate has led to a rise in children with adult diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and joint pains, said Ann Barnes, chief medical officer at Legacy Community Health. Legacy is a network of full-service clinics across the Greater Houston area.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies people as overweight if their body mass index—a calculation based on an individual’s height and weight—is between the 85th and 95th percentiles. A person whose BMI is above the 95th percentile is considered obese.

Harris County officials are also looking for ways address the childhood obesity in low-income communities.

While poor food choices and sedentary behavior are some of the primary contributors to childhood obesity, in lower socioeconomic areas, obesity has also been linked to food deserts, which are areas where a large number of residents are not within walking distance of a full-service grocery store, Barnes said. 

When combined with a lack of transportation options, some parents in low-income areas are forced to purchase their groceries from gas stations and drug stores, Barnes said. The areas usually also feature a high density of fast-food restaurants, she said. About 16 percent of Greater Houston area residents do not have access to fruits and vegetables, according to the survey by the UTPH. 

“If a neighborhood doesn’t have easy access to a full-service grocery store or a farmers market, families have less access to foods that would promote healthy eating,” Barnes said.

Harris County is trying to solve childhood obesity by creating public-private partnerships like Healthy Living Matters that lobby for government support and purchasing green space for parks and trails that will allow for a encourage more active lifestyles.

“You have to rely on people to take the initiative on their own families and households,” Umair Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health.“But … a family doesn’t make the decision to build a park near their home.”

 Find out if the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed your neighborhood a food desert.

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