Two Worlds, One Problem

Local Breakdown
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

In the basement of Jane McDonnell's house in Centreville is a cabinet secured with a heavy Brinks lock. Inside are graham crackers, oatmeal cookie mix, cake frosting.

McDonnell's 11-year-old began closet-eating in the fall, hiding candy wrappers and cracker boxes under furniture and in nooks. Now McDonnell also locks up the Nintendo video game system and has parental controls on the television. She blocked her son's school lunch account to stop him from buying extra entrees and snacks.

Devlin McDonnell lives in an affluent Fairfax County neighborhood with wide lawns, lush parks and grocery stores abundant in fresh produce. Yet he faces roadblocks to a healthy weight.

His parents are busy and often resort to fast food eaten on the fly. He lives within walking distance of two parks, but getting him to put down the portable game player is a "literal tug of war," his mother says. A boy of about Devlin's age moved in a few doors down, and the McDonnells didn't know that for a year because the kid was never outside.

On the face of it, children in the suburbs have every advantage. They live in communities with well-funded parks systems and sports leagues and are more likely to come from affluent and better-educated families than their urban counterparts.

Yet suburbia's kids keep getting fatter, too.

Experts say the reasons are varied. Overworked parents don't cook healthy meals regularly. They let their children spend too many hours watching TV or being strapped in car seats. Crowded youth leagues might fight over field times, but many kids are left alone after school with nothing to do.

Parents say they need more resources. There are few community weight-loss programs for children in the D.C. suburbs, experts said. When the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, an advocacy group, recently compiled a list of 700 programs aimed at healthy lifestyles in the Washington region, it found only a handful of weight-loss programs for children in the suburbs, although there were several in the District.

There are scattered success stories: The YMCA recently expanded a wellness program into the suburbs and will have its first weight-loss camp in summer. Howard and Arlington counties started programs that promote exercise and good eating habits, and Howard recently unveiled a health-themed tot lot at the Mall in Columbia, complete with celery-shaped slides. A handful of child-focused fitness centers have opened around the Capital Beltway in the past two years, although some can be prohibitively expensive, with membership fees of $50 to $300 a month.

"There's very, very few places we as physicians can refer to and tell [parents] to go" to, said Diane Dubinsky, a Fairfax pediatrician.

In a recent survey of Northern Virginia parents for Inova Health System, parents said childhood obesity was a bigger problem than teen smoking, alcohol and drug abuse or reckless driving.

"We can say, 'Wow, this is a huge problem. Why hasn't it been addressed before?' In part because people didn't know what to do," said Peggy Cressy, senior director of community health at Inova, which is organizing a regional initiative against childhood obesity.

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