Kirsten Clark was right when she said her niece, Jordyn Franklin, didn’t have a chance.
Last month, the 11-year-old West Memphis girl was one of the first children in the area to die of COVID-19. Beset with obesity and Type 2 diabetes, and too young to be vaccinated, Jordyn was too lightly armed to fight off a virus that needed to kill her to thrive.
Yet Jordyn’s death shouldn’t just alert people to how this pandemic is still stalking everyone. It should also intensify efforts to battle the epidemic that made her an easy target.
That epidemic being childhood obesity.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 17% of children ages 10 to 17 in the nation are obese.
In Arkansas, where Jordyn was from, 20.2% of children are obese – a ranking which, according to The State of Childhood Obesity report, a project of the Robert Wood Foundation that tracks the epidemic, makes it number five among the states.
Then there’s Tennessee, where 20.4% of children are obese – a ranking that makes it number four, and Mississippi, where 22.3% of the children are obese, and a ranking that makes it number two.
It’s no coincidence that those states, which comprise most of the Mid-South, also have the nation’s highest childhood poverty rates; rates that top 20%.
Yet, as COVID-19 is poised to claim the lives of children like Jordyn, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, is gearing up to battle it.
The Memphis congressman has introduced legislation called “Reducing Childhood Obesity Act.” Among other things, the bill, which is being co-sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., would fund competitive grants to programs that encourage physical activity and help children develop healthy eating habits at early ages.
“I saw a young girl [at a ball game in Arkansas] and she was gigantic, and she was a teenager…I thought that if she had COVID, she would probably have to be hospitalized, and she could die,” Cohen said.
‘Pandemic has been particularly challenging’ for obesity
One habit that can be changed, Cohen said, is how people order at fast food restaurants.
“There are all these fast-food restaurants where they will ask, ‘Would you like to make that a meal?’ and it’s so easy to say yes,” he said.
“But a meal means fries and a sugary soft drink.”
Then, there’s this cruel irony: The school lockdowns and other restrictions that kept children indoors and away from school, but were needed to stop them from spreading COVID-19, has worsened the obesity that can make them more vulnerable to contracting it.
Which is why any efforts to help counteract that predicament are needed, said Webb Smith, exercise physiologist in Methodist LeBonheur’s pediatric obesity program.
“I think this pandemic has been particularly challenging when it comes to pediatric obesity, and obesity in general,” said Smith, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
“Of the [pediatric COVID] cases that I’m aware of, of those who required a good amount of care for COVID, having significant obesity was a significant factor in their case.”
That’s why Smith believes Cohen’s bill is timely.
“I think this is a really nice step in the right direction,” he said. “Obesity care is a complex problem, and you’re going to need a lot of avenues to combat that.
“I think one of the best ways to help children is to try to prevent the obesity from getting to a severe level to begin with, and targeting kids in the zero to 5 age group, has come up in the [medical] literature as one of the high priority areas.”
A dilemma with many layers
Roshun Austin, CEO of the Works, Inc., also praised Cohen’s effort. Her organization has been working to combat obesity in South Memphis, an area with a dearth of supermarkets, by holding healthy cooking classes, which help people eat healthy on their budgets, and running a farmer’s market.
“I think it’s [Cohen’s bill] is great,” Austin said. “Those are the kind of policies we need at the state and local level. That’s what we need – them making policy changes and making funding available to address those issues.”
Indeed, it helps that Cohen is trying to shape policy to tackle a problem that is hobbling the lives of children all over the nation, but especially in the Mid-South.
Yet this is a dilemma with many layers.
There’s culture – where Southern cooking, which tends to be artery-clogging and diabetes-inducing – is about identity as well as appetite.
And, of course, there’s poverty.
Many obese children live in neighborhoods where their parents must forage at convenience stores and corner grocers to find fresh produce and other healthy fare that children in more affluent communities take for granted.
Many have parents who work multiple jobs who are too overwhelmed, many times, to cook at home – and when they do, it’s food that’s more geared to easing hunger pangs than boosting health.
Enhancing efforts to battle childhood obesity – which puts many children at risk for being sickened or killed by a deadly pathogen – should be a priority now.
But while it’s a reminder that there’s work to be done to help children stay healthy, there’s also work to be done to stop fewer of them from growing up poor.
And that struggle continues.
Tonyaa Weathersbee can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @tonyaajw