On the side lawn of the University City YMCA, Dr. LaWanna Starks alternated between jumping rope with children and handing out fliers on healthy eating to people passing by the half-dozen shelters set up to promote healthy lifestyles.
The event, called Healthy Kids Day, was a national YMCA initiative created to encourage kids to stay active this summer – something many don’t do.
Research shows that children gain weight nearly three times faster over the summer than when they are in school, adding further to the nation’s already bulging childhood obesity problem.
When the final school bell rings this week, thousands of kids across the Charlotte area will hang up their gym shoes, drop their playground balls, leave behind their structured feeding schedules and flop down in front of some kind of screen – television, computer or hand-held device – with some kind of processed snack.
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According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average 8- to 10-year-old spends six hours in front of a screen; the average 11- to 14-year old spends nine hours; and the average 15- to 18-year old spends 7 1/2 hours.
At her pediatric practice on West Arbors Drive, Starks is beginning to see the results of that sedentary lifestyle. In the past dozen years, she has treated an increasing number of young patients who are on the verge of being diagnosed with diseases usually reserved for adult patients.
“We’ve seen a rise of children who are at risk for diabetes,” she said. “We have to monitor their weight, monitor their diet and sometimes send them to a specialist.”
But it’s not just screen time that’s to blame. It’s food choices, too.
“Healthy foods are more expensive and take longer to prepare. Plus, there’s the marketing of foods to children that are high in sugar,” said Starks. “Parents don’t understand, many times, what they are purchasing.”
To assist children in finding nutritious meals during the summer, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system runs the Summer Food Program. It targets pocket communities of economically disadvantaged families in Mecklenburg and southern Iredell counties.
Last summer, the program – funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – fed 10,300 children lunch and 6,200 children breakfast daily at 172 sites in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system.
This summer, organizers plan to serve more than 600,000 meals at nearly 200 sites, 45 of them schools.
That may seem like a lot, but Cathy Beam, director of child nutrition services with CMS, said the program really will serve just a small fraction of the 77,900 children who receive free or reduced meals during the school year.
Beam hopes news of the 40-year-old program will reach the ears of those who need it but haven’t heard about it yet.
“We have tried, in the last several years, to raise awareness of the program in the community so that folks know the resources that are available to them to help feed their children in the summertime,” she said. “We just want to take care of our kids.”
Healthy eating coupled with at least 60 minutes of daily exercise, said Starks, will tighten the belt on the summer weight gain.
“At least 60 minutes a day doing something active, be it walking, jumping rope, riding your bicycle. Just 60 minutes,” she said.