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Columns
Cepeda: Counting calories won't cure childhood obesity

CHICAGO

As with every other marker of affluence in America, the line between a healthy childhood and one marred by obesity is firmly drawn between whites and Asians on one side and blacks and Hispanics on the other.

And despite reports that obesity rates among children have started to level off or decrease, a new study arrives at a different conclusion.

Researchers led by Duke University’s Asheley Cockrell Skinner examined Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on children’s height and weight from 1996 to 2016 and “found no evidence of a decline in obesity prevalence at any age. In contrast, we report a significant increase in severe obesity among children aged 2 to 5 years since the 2013-2014 cycle, a trend that continued upward for many subgroups.”

Income and education levels are usually a good proxy for healthy weight, so it’s not surprising that this newest study, published in the journal Pediatrics, also found that children who are white and Asian-American have significantly lower rates of obesity than those who are African-American, Hispanic or of other races. This is obvious to people who get to see the inside of public elementary schools.

Last year I taught in a majority-white suburban elementary school district where 66 percent of students were white and only 31 percent were low-income. The students were, by far, a fit bunch, even though a quarter of the town’s residents were obese in 2015.

The schools offered ample sports teams for both girls and boys as well as after-school clubs for physical activities like running. The community’s park district provided multiple sporting opportunities, and there were neighborhoods and public spaces with plenty of safe, well-lit parks and hiking trails.

School lunch service was nothing out of the ordinary: cheeseburgers, nacho-supreme entrees and oven-baked chicken nuggets. (Notably, though, no chocolate milk was served.)

Snacking, however, was a different story. My school had an approved snack list that prohibited candy bars, salty chips and sugary beverages. There was a strict policy of no cupcakes, sweet treats or pizzas for classroom celebrations. These rules were enforced by all staff and followed by every student.

This year, in contrast, I’m teaching at a school that is comprised of 91 percent low-income students, only 5.6 percent of whom are white. Thirty-six percent of the residents in the community are obese, and there are few safe public areas where people can exercise. There aren’t many low-cost athletic facilities accessible to residents, and organized sports opportunities for kids are hard to find.

School meals—both breakfast and lunch—are billed as free of additives, preservatives, artificial ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup and “mystery meats.” However, the food itself strains credulity on that score.

Sample menu items: chocolate-chip breakfast bars, animal crackers and milk, and “Pop-Tart Fridays” for breakfast. Honey-battered chicken corndogs with crispy tater tots and cheese-filled breadsticks with chocolate milk for lunch.

And the snacks flow!

Students show up to class with bottles of fruit-flavored sugar water and family-sized bags of hot corn chips or full-sized bags of cookies to munch on.

The school holds popcorn sales every Friday and quarterly candy fundraisers. Pizzas are offered as incentives for academic effort, and cupcakes are de rigueur for birthdays.

As a staff member facing enormous pressures to educate students who have overwhelming life challenges, it’s difficult to judge those who indulge in the calorie extravaganza.

Cheap treats provide our needy and oftentimes violence-scarred students easy instances of much-appreciated delight for pennies on the dollar.

In America, the land of plenty, we use food to soothe ourselves when life gets rough. Those living in poverty contend with underemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, broken families and chronic disease—61 percent of black non-Hispanic children and 51 percent of Hispanic children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, according to Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization.

This practically requires comfort food since there are few other consolations to turn to.

Meanwhile, the affluent can live active, balanced lives, often facing far fewer crises that cause them to pacify themselves with fatty, sugary and salty treats.

Sure, we can talk about providing calorie counts on menus, limiting people’s access to junk foods and strapping step-counters on kids to promote activity and reduce obesity.

But until we fix a majority of the factors that contribute to childhood poverty—segregated neighborhoods, environmental hazards, the lack of safe outdoor spaces, underemployment—there’s no amount of positive nutritional advice or encouragement to exercise that will slow the rise of childhood obesity.


Other_views
Guest Views: Don’t let Jeff Sessions strangle criminal-justice reform in its crib

Despite the partisanship that has paralyzed Washington on so many issues, some Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate have come together around the proposition that America imprisons too many people for too long and that the burden of incarceration disproportionately falls on racial minorities. Ominously, however, the enlightened legislation they have produced is opposed by the Trump Justice Department.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act approved by a bipartisan vote in the Judiciary Committee would reduce some mandatory minimum sentences, create a new “safety valve” that would allow judges to sentence some low-level drug offenders to less time than required by existing mandatory minimums and reduce a “three-strike” penalty for some repeat offenders from life imprisonment to 25 years. It also would make retroactive a 2010 law that reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, a distinction that disproportionately punished African Americans.

The Senate bill isn’t perfect. It doesn’t go far enough in reforming mandatory minimum sentences, which are often enacted by Congress in response to panic about perceived “waves” of particular sorts of crimes and which tie judges’ hands. In fact, the legislation creates new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and exporting weapons.

Still, the legislation would represent a significant shift away from policies that have devastated poor and minority communities without achieving a commensurate increase in public safety.

In addition to changes in sentencing, the bill would allow some federal prisoners to earn time off their prison sentences for successful participation in “recidivism reduction” programs, including education and job training. This represents a welcome recognition that the length of a prisoner’s time behind bars should reflect not only the seriousness of his crime but also his efforts to change his behavior.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill despite a warning from Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that its enactment would be a “grave error” and would reduce sentences for a “highly dangerous cohort of criminals including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms.” Sessions also claimed that it would be wrong to reduce drug sentences “in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history.” (The opioid crisis is not primarily a problem of lax law enforcement.)

Sessions’ view of criminal justice is a throwback to the “tough on crime” policies that created the crisis of over-incarceration the Senate bill aims to address. Unfortunately, his views could carry weight with other members of Congress and with President Trump, who promised in his inaugural address to end what he called “this American carnage.” Supporters of the Senate need to drive home the truth that excessively long sentences and prison terms do not make the country safer.

—Los Angeles Times


Letters
Letters to the editor for Tuesday, March 6

Concealed carry should be option for teachers

I have to give credit where credit is due. I read Friday’s editorial, “Arm teacher’s to save lives, stop shooters,” and I totally agree.

Here’s why: 1) It’s a fundamental right of a human being to be able to defend one’s self. It’s outlined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. 2) I know many conservative friends of mine who don’t wish to carry for various reasons. Same applies here. Only those who wish to carry would. Those who don’t won’t be forced to. 3) The whole premise behind carrying a concealed firearm is just that—concealment. Nobody knows who’s got what and where. 4) You can put up all the bullet-proof glass and metal detectors you want to, and you can put in all the locked doors you want to, but guns are still going to get in. Period. I’ve seen security breaches happen many times. 5) Let’s not forget, teachers have the right and obligation to protect our children. Let’s give them their freedom to do so.

Lastly, I was also appalled at the conga line of disapproving people, especially the police department. People seem to forget there is a class conceal-carry weapons owners must take. It’s basic, but they are well trained. Also, most are already familiar with the responsibility of a firearm. I’d trust them more than anyone else in a crisis.

Not every teacher would, could or should carry a concealed firearm, but let’s stop disarming our first responders, OK?

ANDY MUESKE

Janesville

Wisconsin cannot afford to withdraw from NAFTA

With international trade in the news as of late, one thing that can’t be denied is Wisconsin’s dependence on the North American Free Trade Agreement. That’s why talk of withdrawing from NAFTA should concern everyone.

What many don’t realize is that 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States. In order to get access to those consumers for American businesses, our nation sets up trade agreements, and while NAFTA, which went into effect in 1994, may need to be modernized, there is no argument that NAFTA benefits Wisconsin workers, businesses and consumers.

In fact, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, withdrawing from NAFTA would hit Wisconsin the second hardest of any state in the entire nation. That’s because 46 percent of all Wisconsin exports go to Canada and Mexico. At a value of $9.6 billion in exports and accounting for 249,000 Wisconsin jobs, there is absolutely no doubt that ending NAFTA would have a massive negative impact on our state.

While it’s never a bad idea to review and update trade deals for the changing times, threatening to withdraw from NAFTA is not a joking matter. Wisconsin cannot afford in either jobs or exports to leave NAFTA.

LORI WHITE

Genoa City

Running for Milton council to do what’s best for residents

The election for Milton City Council is occurring April 3. As a candidate, I encourage all our residents to get out and vote for who they think is best. In our democracy, voting is a citizen’s most important right and privilege.

I graduated from Milton High School in 2014 and will be graduating from UW-Whitewater in May with a bachelor of science degree with an environmental science major and political science minor. I also interned with the city of Milton in the summer of 2017.

As a resident of Milton, I became interested in the local politics to ensure that our sense of community remains strong and that the enforcement of environmental protections remains robust in this time of economic change and expansion in our city. The economy and business sector are not disconnected from the natural world. My economics professor often reminded me that “we don’t have to sacrifice a strong economy for a healthy environment” (quote by Dennis Weaver). Milton can achieve balance between a sustainable environment, a successful business sector and a positive quality of life.

I believe in fiscal accountability which supports a stable and safe community. I want to govern in ways that benefit city infrastructure, businesses, employees and residents. Milton is a great place in which to live and work. If elected as your alderperson, I pledge to do what is best for all residents today and in the future. Thank you for your support and vote!

JESSICA LAEHN

Milton