Why Food and Fitness Matter

NJHI 2015: Building a Culture of Health in New Jersey – Communities Moving to Action Believe in a Healthy Newark

Eugene, one of my employees, stopped by my office to chat about his mother’s recent health scare. She had a stroke during the winter and was previously in a diabetic coma. Yesterday, a nutritionist visited Eugene and his mother at home to discuss options for healthier eating. The nutritionist explained to Eugene’s mom that her health-related issues were due to high blood pressure and diabetes­–both of which could be controlled through a healthy diet and exercise.

Eugene’s mom had been educated about healthy eating and exercise before and had received warnings about the consequences of a poor diet and lack of physical movement. Eugene told me that his mother had ignored those earlier warnings and subsequently suffered from diabetes-related complications and high blood pressure, the latter of which prompted the stroke.

Unfortunately, this story is not unusual in Newark, nor in many urban communities across the country. Newark’s physical, emotional and financial health is staggering from high rates of diabetes and heart disease in both children and adults. According to a 2010 Rutgers University study, 27% of children in Newark, ages 3-5, were obese. In addition, 27 % of children ages 6-11 years old were obese and 24% of youth ages 12-18 were obese. In 2017, those rates are most likely unchanged. According to the 2016 County Health Rankings, the rate of childhood obesity in Newark continues into adulthood. Newark is the largest city in Essex County, and at the county level, 27% of adults are obese. Additionally, 27% of Essex County adults report no physical activity.

The Food and Fitness Committee of the Believe in Healthy Newark Initiative seeks to develop local interventions and policy to change these dismal statistics. Focusing on our community’s young children and their parents, the committee hopes to provide pre-K programs and elementary schools with broader access to healthy foods and nutritional education. We can also begin to teach healthy eating patterns at an earlier age, during the stages when proper nutrition is crucial for brain development. We are working to impact families’ lifestyles through parental engagement by introducing options for healthy eating and physical activity. Certainly, there are challenges ahead, such as addressing the community’s need for additional safe streets and playgrounds.

While fairly new, the Food and Fitness Committee has engaged a broad spectrum of thought leaders and community members who are historically tied to creating policy and interventions around healthy food choices and access to physical activity. It will take community collaboration at all levels to see healthier outcomes for our children and families. Outcomes, we hope, that will differ from Eugene’s 67-year-old mother who faces a lifelong struggle with weight, heart disease, diabetes and potentially other life-threatening ailments.

Catherine Wilson
United Way of Essex and West Hudson