Farm to Head Start among many nonprofit programs making progress
This past summer, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties’ (CAPRW) Head Start Program partnered with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy to establish a pilot program known as “Farm to Head Start.” Modeled after the successful Farm to Table movement, the Farm to Head Start Program is designed to connect young children to locally grown farm-fresh food, educate children and families about proper nutrition, and support area farmers who are producing healthy choices such as fruits and vegetables.
On Sunday, November 30, CAPRW’s Farm to Head Start Program will be highlighted during the local CW 23’s television program “Our Issues Twin Cities.” This particular episode will focus on the monumental problem of childhood obesity, which most experts contend has reached epidemic levels.
As part of this program, CAPRW Head Start staff will address the importance of introducing small children to healthy eating options, the challenge of delivering farm-fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods, the logistics involved in getting food from the farm to the table, and the widespread benefit of such a program to the community.
These issues are significant, especially when considering the role that poverty and race play in the scourge of childhood obesity. Both nationally and locally, statistics reveal that while the obesity epidemic affects all ages, genders, and racial groups, low-income populations and communities of color are disproportionately affected by this trend.
The Minnesota Department of Health notes that during a nearly three-decade stretch beginning in 1980, childhood obesity in Minnesota more than tripled among youth ages six to 19 years old. This report also shows that Minnesota children between the ages of two to five and enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are significantly more likely to be obese.
Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota reports that Black and Hispanic children, particularly boys between the ages of two to 19 and girls between the ages of six to 19, are much more likely to be overweight than their White counterparts. In addition, the Children’s Hospital study states, “In Minnesota, children in families that are on public insurance are two times more likely to be overweight than those on private insurance.”
While this data is clearly troubling, the good news in Minnesota is that programs such as Farm to Head Start are beginning to reverse this trend. A 2013 Star Tribune article reported that the State of Minnesota has observed a notable sharp drop in childhood obesity in recent years, including “one of the sharpest drops nationally” among low-income children. These positive outcomes are in no small part due to the Minnesota Department of Health’s partnerships with local schools and childcare providers.
However in addition to these efforts, there has been an explosion of community-based and nonprofit initiatives that have made an indelible impact throughout the Twin Cities and the state. In addition to the Farm to Table movement and an increase in SNAP Outreach programs, groups such as the American Heart Association’s Minnesotans for Healthy Kid’s Coalition, the Women’s Environmental Institute, the Greater Twin Cities United Way, Action for Healthy Kids, and Fare for All, among numerous others, have significantly contributed to the improved health outcomes of many low-income children.
These programs clearly illustrate the value of nonprofit and community-based organizations, proving that we do make a positive difference in the lives of our fellow citizens. Still, there is much more to be done as far too many of our children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, struggle with their weight as well as access to healthy foods and produce.
Many health experts suggest that it is imperative to effectively reach children with these initiatives by the age of five, as overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults. Steering our young people from this path is critical, as obesity presents a myriad of chronic and life-threatening diseases and conditions.
These include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, stroke, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, liver disease, various cancers, hormone imbalance, arthritis and joint problems, and depression and anxiety. In fact, today children and adolescents are suffering from diseases that previously only affected adults, such as pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.
From December 7 through the 11th, CAPRW’s Head Start Program will be participating in the National Head Start Association’s 31st Annual Parent Conference & Family Engagement Institute in New Orleans. Our Head Start staff will showcase CAPRW’s Farm to Head Start program during a session entitled “Farm to Childcare: The Freshest for the Youngest.”
This of course presents a tremendous opportunity to share crucial strategies and practices with other agencies in the collective effort to reduce childhood obesity. And again, in spite of recent successes here in Minnesota and elsewhere, the fight against childhood obesity and related disparities that plague low-income communities must continue to grow. At stake is the health and well-being of our most valuable resource — our children.
Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.