Erica Penick took her 6-year-old daughter for an annual check-up a few months ago and discovered she was borderline overweight. That's when she made the decision to change the entire family's eating habits.
"Now we try to stay away from eating out a lot and have more home-cooked meals," said Penick, a Columbus resident. "I do a lot of soul food cooking. But I minimize the butter and bake a lot instead of frying so much."
Penick, 30, also has daughters ages 10, 3 and 5-months-old. She was unemployed for a year before recently landing a job as a leasing agent at the Ambling Management Company. She represents a growing trend among low-income parents who want healthier lifestyles for their children.
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Georgia was one of 19 states and U.S. territories where the obesity rate for preschoolers in low-income families dropped significantly from 2008 through 2011. For Georgia, the rate dropped from 15 percent to 13 percent. In Alabama, the rate remained steady around 14 percent.
The research is based on weight and height measurements for nearly 12 million children ages 2 to 4 who participate in federally funded maternal and child nutrition programs nationwide.
The statistics come as good news to children health advocates who have been spreading awareness in low-income neighborhoods. Yet, there's still much work to be done, said Trisha Hardy. She is director of child wellness at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, which helped launch an anti-obesity pilot program in Columbus.
"Georgia has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the nation," she said. "While we have seen some leveling off over the last few years, (the state) has nearly a million overweight or obese children and, according to the CDC's trajectory, the state is on a path to an obesity rate of 53.6 percent by 2030; the highest the state has ever seen."
National and state health officials say childhood obesity could lead to serious health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, asthma and sleep apnea at young ages. First lady Michelle Obama launched her Let's Move campaign to try to solve the problem within a generation.
In 2010, the obesity rate for the general Chattahoochee Valley population was 30 percent, a percentage point higher than the state average, according to a 2012 Comprehensive Community Assessment conducted by the Enrichment Services Program. The obesity rate in four out of eight counties in the Valley was higher than the state average for those considered "at risk" in 2009. Muscogee County was one such county, with an "at risk" rate of 10.6 percent compared to 8.7 percent for the state.
The study found that 19 percent of the county's residents lacked access to sufficient, safe and nutritious foods, making it difficult for parents to raise healthy kids.
"When households have a limited budget to purchase food, this tends to reduce the variety and the quality of food that is purchased," the report said. "In order to stretch food budgets, food insecure households tend to replace high cost and low-calorie items like fresh produce, fish and lean meats with cheap, high carbohydrate items like pasta, bread, soda and junk foods."
About three years ago, the Georgia Department of Health launched a program to fight childhood obesity. Columbus was chosen as a pilot because it was considered a "high obesity zone," Hardy said, and the city had a large enough population for a statistically valid pilot.
Dr. Joseph Zanga, chief of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital at Columbus Regional Health, led the local effort to educate families about the dangers of obesity. Through a program called Live Healthy Columbus, he and other advocates spread awareness with billboards, radio, television and newspaper ads. They also set up cooking classes, nutritional programs and community gardens at public housing complexes, Boys & Girls clubs, Girls Inc. and other locations. Many social service agencies have also been emphasizing health and fitness through programs.
Zanga said he believes the campaign had an impact on low-income families with young children.
"We have been for several years now saying to parents of infants, toddlers and preschoolers that putting on excessive weight, gaining weight too fast, poor diet and insufficient exercise contribute significantly to childhood and adult obesity," Zanga said "Maybe the message is getting through to the people at highest risk."
Making a Change
Penick began to notice children in her neighborhood getting bigger at younger ages, and girls developing faster than previous generations. She didn't want that for her daughters, and began taking advantage of health and fitness programs in the community. Her daughters are active at the Boys & Girls Club, where they play flag football and get fresh vegetables from a community garden that they helped plant.
Penick said her family has also been inspired by the nation's first family and Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign.
"My 6-year-old absolutely loves the president," she said. "She quotes things that he says all the time and keeps up with things Michelle does with the girls, and they're the reason she wanted to have a garden."
Penick said the healthy mindset is different from how she grew up a generation ago. Her mother was an awesome cook, but fried everything, which led to many health problems.
Her mother died from breast cancer at 49, and Penick's father died from pancreatic cancer at 52. They both had high blood pressure, she said. Her mother also suffered from kidney failure and her father had to have open heart surgery.
Penick said she's beginning to see the same illnesses plague her generation. She suffered from high blood pressure during her last pregnancy and decided to cut pork from the family's diet.
"I find here lately that everybody is worried about their health with the different problems that they're facing," she said. "I'm only 30 years old and before I could eat anything and not gain weight. It wouldn't affect me having blood pressure problems or diabetes or anything like that."
But Penick wants to break the cycle. So now she broils or grills chicken and the family eats lots of asparagus, something they first sampled at Publix. It's one of their favorite vegetables.
"My kids say it tastes like broccoli with cheese, without any cheese on it," she said.
Samantha Pagano, a 30-year-old mother of two, is also concerned about her family's eating habits. She grew up in a middle-class Italian family where her mother was a stay-at-mom who gave her fruits and vegetables every day.
Now, Pagano is struggling to raise her 7-year-old son and 16-month-old daughter on the meager wages she earns as a certified nursing assistant. She lives in a low-income neighborhood where she sees unsupervised children eating whatever they want. Her children are not obese, but she worries about their future.
"My son is not a very healthy eater," she said. "So I have to sneak Life Cereal into (his lunch container). If he sees something healthy, he doesn't want it."
A healthy baby
Dr. Zanga said there are signs of progress, but the community still has a long way to go. He said many parents overfeed their babies, which leads to obesity. He said the problem is particularly prevalent among low-income families who don't want their babies to look like they're starving.
"We still have these cultural (ideas) that a heavy baby is a healthy baby, and the old Gerber baby is the ideal," he said. "And if the baby whimpers any, it must mean the baby is hungry and we have to feed the baby."
As children get older, it's hard to break the habit, Zanga said. Children eat more than they should, and the portions get bigger. Much of the food comes from fast food restaurants, which serve fat-laden meals and sugary drinks.
And then what do the children do?
"They stay home, watch TV, play video games, and hopefully read a book," Zanga said. "But they're not getting much exercise."
Reversing the trend
The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning is now targeting preschoolers. In 2012, officials launched a quality rating system that includes nutrition and exercise in the qualifications. In July, DECAL began posting the ratings online so parents could research childcare centers at www.qualityrated.org and www.decal.ga.gov.
The department also has a Farm to Preschool program that teaches parents how to introduce gardening to preschoolers and help incorporate fresh fruits and veggies into their diets.
The Childcare Network, which owns 12 centers in the Columbus area, participates in the DECAL program. Stephanie Hovey, the organization's USDA coordinator for Georgia and six other states, said the network has changed its menu as a result. The centers now serve more whole grain breads, fresh and frozen vegetables and plenty of drinking water.
Last year, local childcare centers also participated in a grant to expose the children to exotic fruits and teach their parents about good nutrition. Many of the preschoolers were from low-income families, Hovey said.
"That seemed to really go over well with the parents," she said. "They enjoyed us giving them the information because some of them didn't know where they could get nutritional information for their children."