A growing problem in Prince George’s

June 27, 2013

A family outing this week turned into a lesson on a serious health problem affecting residents in the D.C. area — one with sometimes deadly consequences.

While waiting to be seated at a chain family restaurant in Bowie, I noticed that a number of people in the waiting area appeared to be overweight. To pass the 20-minute wait for a table, I counted the number of people entering and exiting the establishment, noting those who looked overweight to my admittedly untrained eyes.

The unscientific survey results: 20 of 32 people — about 63 percent — were overweight.

Turns out, that was low.

According to the county Health Department, 71.5 percent of adults in Prince George’s are obese or overweight. And 48 percent of youth 18 or younger are at risk for obesity and are currently overweight.

Obesity is a national and regional problem. Just last week, the American Medical Association recognized obesity as a disease. In Northern Virginia, 58 percent of adults are obese, according to a May report by the Northern Virginia Health Foundation. In the District, a 2010 city government report says that 31 percent of African American residents and 8 percent of white residents are obese. The obesity rate for adults in Prince George’s is higher than the state average and all contiguous counties.

The obesity trend in Prince George’s has worsened even as the county has solidified itself as the premiere suburb in the nation for African American families. From 1995 to 2007, the number of obese county residents increased by 13 percent, according to the 2011-14 Prince George’s County Health Improvement Plan.

“We are concerned because . . . adult obesity is associated with a number of serious preventable health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” says county Health Officer Pamela B. Creekmur. “Pediatric obesity in particular could create a generation that may not live as long as [their] parents or grandparents.”

She and public health researchers cite poor access to healthful foods and low levels of physical activity as causes for obesity in Prince George’s. In other words, too many fast-food outlets (71 percent of food establishments in the county are fast-food restaurants, according to a November 2012 report from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission), too few groceries and supermarkets, and too little exercise.

But how do you explain this finding by health researchers: County residents who have some college education or college degrees reported a more favorable health status on every chronic illness measured except for two — overweight/obesity and high blood pressure. Usually, experts say, more education means better health. But that’s not the case when the disease is obesity in Prince George’s.

Natalie S. Burke, a county resident and chief executive officer of CommonHealth Action, a national nonprofit public health organization, lays blame on cultural phenomena. Black county residents, in particular, she says, tend to have desk jobs that involve little physically intense work. She says they drive their cars everywhere and squeeze “meals” in between long work days and toting children from activity to activity.

“What affluence buys us is a level of convenience and a lack of physical activity,” Burke says. “We no longer walk anywhere. Our kids no longer walk to school. They take a school bus. In many cases, parents drive their children to the school bus stop. Safety issues factor into that, but in many cases, children expect that ride to the bus stop.”

Job-related stress also contributes to the problem. “We self-medicate ourselves, and that includes with food,” Burke says.

Prince George’s officials set goals in County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s Health Improvement Plan for lowering incidences of obesity. By the end of 2014, the goal is for 30 percent of county adults to be at a healthy weight, up from 28.6 percent in 2010. The plan also calls for a reduction in the percentage of youth ages 12-19 who are obese from 16.1 percent in 2008 to 15.3 percent by the end of 2014.

To reach the goals, the county is spending $3.25 million over two years ($2.6 million coming from a two-year grant) on a variety of programs aimed at educating residents about healthy eating habits, encouraging physical activities, launching community gardens where residents can grow vegetables and developing wellness plans for patients identified as having potential for developing chronic diseases like obesity.

Some county schools are taking a lead. Twenty-two county schools were among 250 public schools nationwide recognized in October by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the William J. Clinton Foundation for making their schools healthier for students and staff. To win an award, schools have to have nutrition services and physical activity programs that meet or exceed the alliance’s standards.

County residents have to do their part, as well. When a hostess at that Bowie chain restaurant escorted my family to a table, she carried a basket of hot rolls and butter. Our waiter arrived in less than five minutes with two more baskets of rolls and butter. The three of us hadn’t asked for any of them. We left them untouched.

Keith Harriston lives in Prince George’s County and has two children in county public schools. He teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits hunewsservice.com.

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