Every morning, Zulma Guzman’s three children wake up at 7:30 and roll out of bed. They shuffle downstairs to the kitchen of their Southwest Philadelphia home, where a traditional Central American breakfast of eggs, beans, cheese, crema and tortillas awaits them. They scarf it down quickly, before virtual classes begin.
Then, Guzman said, it’s usually only a matter of minutes until at least one of them wanders back down to graze a bit in the kitchen. They grab a cookie or a carton of milk and bring it back up to their rooms, where they sit in front of their laptops, nibble on their snacks, and sit some more.
“It’s making them gain weight, and it’s just making them feel like eating more,” Guzman, who is originally from El Salvador, said in Spanish of virtual learning. She tries to cook healthy meals, she said, but she also has to juggle cleaning houses, taking her kids — ages 9, 12, and 14 — to medical appointments and helping neighbors whose English isn’t great navigate schooling for their children.
“If I have time to buy vegetables, I probably don’t have time to cook them,” Guzman said. She’s more likely to buy hot dogs or microwavable hamburgers in a pinch to make sure she has food on the table for her family, she said.
One of the biggest risk factors for childhood obesity is economic insecurity. As the coronavirus pandemic puts more people out of work, the financial pressure mounts for families who are already struggling. Combine that with lack of structure, physical activity, and access to reliable school meals, and you get the perfect conditions for childhood obesity rates to soar.
Nationally, about 1 in 6 children ages 10 to 17 experience obesity, and rates are nearly twice as high for Black and Latino kids than for white kids. According to a new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, rates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey fall just below the national average, while Delaware ranks right above: 16% of children there are obese.
“For us, that’s way too high a number,” said Giridhar Mallya, senior policy officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The report doesn’t capture any change in obesity rates since the pandemic began, but Mallya said the circumstances that Guzman and other low-income families find themselves in would logically exacerbate the problem.
“We see that for families who are struggling financially, they often live in communities that are under-resourced and under-invested in,” said Mallya. “Disinvestment leads to less access to well-maintained parks and playgrounds, and less availability of grocery stores that carry the full spectrum of foods.”
In May of this year, more than 1 in 5 adults living with children reported that their households had faced food insecurity in the prior month.