First Person

In Colorado, childhood obesity climbs with poverty

The seeming opposites of hunger and obesity are simply two sides of the same coin – poverty – and America can put an end to both childhood epidemics if we simply find the political will, speakers at the Colorado Children’s Campaign annual luncheon said Wednesday.

The event brought together more than 800 community and business leaders, child advocates and lawmakers for a discussion on childhood hunger, obesity and poverty.

Bill Shore

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to the crowd, as did U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Chris Watney, Children’s Campaign executive director. But the highlight of the afternoon was a conversation with two nationally-recognized hunger and social justice experts, Bill Shore and Angela Glover Blackwell.

Shore is founder and executive director of Share Our Strength and the author of four books, including his most recent, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, the story of social entrepreneurs who achieved things previously thought unattainable.

Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy organization, and a pioneer in new approaches to neighborhood revitalization. She is chair of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity.

Angela Glover Blackwell

Colorado stats dismal

In Colorado, the number of children living in poverty has more than doubled since 2000. In 2009, 210,000 children – one of every six in the state – lived in poverty, according to the 2011 Kids Count survey. Meanwhile, the number of children living in “food insecure” households has increased to 20 percent of all Colorado children. That’s slightly higher than the national average of 19 percent.

As poverty rates in Colorado have shot up, so has childhood obesity. While the state had the second-lowest childhood obesity rate in the nation in 2003, Colorado ranked 10th by 2007, with 27 percent of children overweight or obese. That’s the second-fastest rate of increase in the nation.

The link between increasing rates of poverty and increasing rates of obesity is clear. Nationally, 45 percent of children living in poverty are overweight or obese, compared to 22 percent of children who live more comfortably.

And things are only getting worse.

“An undercurrent in this conversation is that poverty is at levels we haven’t seen in this country in a long time,” Shore said, noting that recent estimates show that half of all children today will receive some form of public assistance at some point during their childhood. “People are not really addressing this issue of poverty at a time when income inequality is at its greatest level.”

Dr. Steve Berman, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado, at left, moderated a conversation with Blackwell and Shore.

Blackwell added: “Let’s not act like we can’t solve this problem. If we had the political will, we could solve it. But just focusing on programs to get more cash into the household won’t be enough. We have to create sustainable pathways out of poverty.”

“Show me a problem, and I can lift up five or six programs to fix it,” she said. “But what I try to get people to really focus on is how to weave those programs into a strategy that is a systematic way to move people out of poverty.”

Shore agreed, noting that it’s not a lack of anti-hunger programs – or even a lack of food – that causes kids to go hungry.

“Kids are hungry and they are obese because they lack access to healthy food,” he said.

Poor neighborhoods lack healthy food options

Often, families living in poor neighborhoods don’t have easy access to full-service grocery stores and must eat what’s available at convenience stores and fast food restaurants. These pockets are the “food deserts” that pockmark the city as well as broad swaths of rural Colorado. Those who do get to a grocery store often don’t make the healthiest selections.

“If you’re getting by on the poverty rate, which is $22,000 for a family of four, you’re not shopping in the vegetable aisle,” said Watney.

Shore promotes such programs as Cooking Matters, a Share Our Strength-sponsored project to teach families shopping and cooking techniques that are both nutritionally sound and budget friendly.

He also bemoaned the fact that Colorado has been slow to take advantage of federal programs designed to ease childhood hunger. Until a recent statewide effort to expand summer feeding programs for children raised the numbers, only 6 percent of Colorado children who qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches during the school year also got federally-funded meals during the summer.

“This is Washington D.C.’s best billion-dollar secret,” Shore said. “Colorado has left $50 million to $100 million in Washington because more kids who are qualified haven’t enrolled in these programs, which could buy milk from local dairy farmers and bread from local bakers.”

Both speakers urged those present to think creatively and to take personal responsibility for creating the political will necessary to solve the twin epidemics of hunger and obesity.

“We have an obligation not to occupy Wall Street, but to occupy ourselves,” Blackwell said.

By the Numbers: Colorado’s Children and Poverty

  • The number of Colorado children in poverty has more than doubled since 2000. In 2009, 210,000 children – or one of every six in the state – lived in poverty.
  • The number of Colorado children living in “food insecure” households has increased to 20 percent – slightly higher than the national average of 19 percent.
  • Colorado had the second-lowest childhood obesity rate in the nation in 2003. By 2007, Colorado ranked 10th, with 27 percent of children overweight or obese – the country’s second-fastest rate of increase.
  • Nationally, 45 percent of children living in poverty are overweight or obese, compared to 22 percent of children who live more comfortably.

Where to get more information

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.