The Other 60 Percent

Poverty’s bottom line hits waistline too

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

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.

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.

Poverty and obesity
“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.”
— Chris 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

in support

Denver school board pledges to ‘stand shoulder-to-shoulder’ with undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
Arizona Valverde, a ninth grader at Denver's North High, holds a sign in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September 2017.

The Denver school board took a stand Thursday in support of young undocumented immigrants, urging Congress to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and pledging to provide opportunities for Denver educators to teach students about immigrant rights.

“You have accomplices and luchadores in us,” said board member Angela Cobián.

Cobián, who represents the heavily Latino region of southwest Denver and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was one of three board members who read the resolution out loud. Board member Lisa Flores read it in English, while Cobián and board member Carrie Olson, who until being elected last year worked as a bilingual Denver teacher, took turns reading it in Spanish.

“That was the most beautiful resolution I’ve ever heard read, and it’s so important,” board president Anne Rowe said when they’d finished.

The resolution passed unanimously. It says the seven-member school board implores Congress, including Colorado’s representatives, to “protect the DREAMers, providing them with the lasting solution they deserve and an end to the uncertainty they face.”

It also says the board “recognizes the importance of educators discussing and engaging with students on this issue,” including by delivering lessons explaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary protection from deportation and work permits to immigrants under 35 who were brought to the United States as children.

President Trump announced in September that he would end the Obama-era program on March 5. Lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to provide legal protections to the approximately 800,000 immigrants who are in danger of losing their DACA status. Two different deals failed to pass the Senate Thursday night.

About 17,000 such immigrants live in Colorado. Denver Public Schools doesn’t track how many of its 92,600 students are protected by DACA, but the resolution notes that many young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers, “have attended DPS schools their entire lives or are DPS graduates who have built their lives in our community.”

The district was also the first in the country to hire, through the Teach for America program, teachers who are DACA recipients. Cobián recognized five of those teachers Thursday.

A recent national study found that DACA has encouraged undocumented students to finish high school and enroll in college. The study also noted a decrease in teen pregnancy and an increase in the number of 17- to 29-year-old non-citizens who are working.

The resolution notes that ending DACA “will be deeply harmful to our schools and community, depriving countless students, families, and educators of their peace of mind, creating widespread fear and uncertainty, and causing significant disruption to the learning environment.”

This is not the first time the Denver school board has made a formal show of support for immigrant students. A year ago, as Trump’s presidency sparked fears of an immigration crackdown, the board unanimously approved a resolution affirming the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Below, read in full the resolution passed Thursday.

mental health matters

Colorado lawmakers say yes to anti-bullying policies but no to suicide prevention efforts

PHOTO: Denver Post file

It was the suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis that prompted state Sen. Rhonda Fields to call on state education officials to develop better anti-bullying policies.

Ashawnty, a fifth-grade student at Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora, took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. As Fields met with grieving constituents, she felt like she didn’t know enough to act.

“The issue is very complex, and I felt like I couldn’t move forward on some of the suggestions because I hadn’t done the research,” said Fields, an Aurora Democrat. “If we really want to reduce incidents of bullying, it has to be tied to evidence-based practices and research so that schools know what works.”

Relatives of Ashawnty and of other children who had attempted suicide provided emotional testimony to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning. In a bipartisan, though not unanimous, vote, committee members advanced legislation that would require the Colorado Department of Education to research and write an anti-bullying policy that school districts could use as a model. A few hours later, the Senate’s “kill” committee, one to which members of Republican leadership send bills they don’t want to get a full vote, rejected a separate bill that would have provided grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to school districts to help train teachers, students, and others in effective suicide prevention.

“You vote for anti-bullying policies, you vote for $7 million for interoperable radios, and you can’t support suicide prevention,” said an angry state Sen. Nancy Todd in the hallway after the vote. Todd, an Aurora Democrat, was a sponsor of the suicide prevention bill, and she and state Sen. Owen Hill both serve on the education committee. Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, also serves on State Affairs and voted yes on the anti-bullying bill and no on the suicide prevention bill.

Ashawnty Davis was the youngest of a series of children to die by suicide last year, and before the session started, lawmakers pledged to provide more support to schools and students.

Experts caution against drawing a direct line between bullying and suicide. Studies have found that children who are bullied – as well as children who engage in bullying – are at higher risk of harming themselves, but most children who are bullied don’t try to take their own lives. There are often multiple factors involved.

Nonetheless, the testimony heard by the Senate Education Committee focused on preventing bullying as a way to prevent suicide.

Kristy Arellano, whose daughter suffered a severe brain injury in a suicide attempt that occurred after being bullied, said neither she nor her daughter’s teachers had the tools they needed.

“We need to arm our schools and their faculty with the tools for how to stop bullying,” she said. “I think my daughter just didn’t know how to deal with the hateful things that were said to her, and I didn’t know how to help her either.”

Trembling as he described his family’s loss, Dedrick Harris, Ashawnty’s uncle, said passing this legislation and putting better anti-bullying policies in place would give some meaning to his niece’s death.

“My niece became a statistic,” he said. “I support this because it’s all I can do.”

Dew Walker, a family preservation specialist and grief counselor based in Denver, said current policies aren’t helping children, and they can feel like they have no way out.

“I’m here because there are children who don’t have a voice,” she said. “They reported their bullying, but they felt like nothing was being done. They didn’t report it to the right people, or they just weren’t that important. They go silent. They wear a mask. And they know about zero tolerance, and they worry that if they defend themselves, they’ll be in trouble, not the bully.”

The anti-bullying bill was co-sponsored by Fields and state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican who, back when he was still a representative in the state House, sponsored the 2011 legislation that created the Department of Education’s current bullying prevention program.

School districts are required to have anti-bullying policies that meet certain criteria, and the department makes resources and information about best practices available on its website.

The department also has provided $4.1 million in grants from marijuana tax money to 73 schools to develop anti-bullying programs.

Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said that because so many other states have developed model policies, she believes the work can be done without needing additional resources and may be of value to school districts.

“We know that other states have seen this as valuable,” she said.

While Colsman said she isn’t qualified to talk about the link between bullying and suicide, “the concerns of children committing suicide are something that we all need to be thinking about.”

The suicide prevention bill would have made grants available for up to 25 interested school districts, public schools, or charter schools each year at a cost of roughly $300,000. Todd said that it was her intention that the bulk of the money come from gifts, donations, and grants, though the bill language also allowed for a general fund appropriation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment already gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts, as well as a $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties, according to a fiscal analysis. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Todd’s bill would have made money available specifically to schools in all parts of the state.

Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24.

The bill would have allowed schools to design their own programs, and the grant money could have been used for training for parents and teachers, to help students recognize warning signs in their peers and know how to respond, and for the development of curriculum and educational materials.

In voting no, Hill cited concerns about how the grant program would be paid for, while state Sen. Vicki Marble, the Fort Collins Republican who chairs the State Affairs committee, said it sounded like a government solution to a family and community problem.

“Our children have a respect problem,” she said. “They aren’t what they used to be.”

Marble said she knows the guilt that survivors carry because 10 members of her extended family have taken their own lives.

“Government is not the answer,” she said. “What I see in this bill is the same bureaucracy of reports and advisory groups and grants and money, but no solutions.”


Resources

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: mhfaco.org. Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.