Childhood obesity is an epidemic in Baltimore, with the first signs seen in many children before they even reach traditional school age. Sixteen percent of the pre-kindergartners, ages 4 and 5, at one Northwest Baltimore public school were overweight, according to a 2013 survey of 150 students, and 12 percent of them were considered obese (above the 95th weight percentile for their ages and heights). Nearly half of the fourth-graders at that same school were overweight, and one in five of them was obese.
Those children are at risk for a life-long struggle with weight, negative body image and health complications, including diabetes. Yet program cuts have resulted in most students receiving only 40 minutes a week of in-school physical education, and many kids said they have little opportunity for physical activity outside of school.
A second-grade student living in the Druid Park/Gwynn Oak area of Northwest Baltimore shared with me that she is concerned about her safety when she is outside of her house. She told me that she saw a little girl on the news who was kidnapped, killed and thrown in a dumpster and that she was worried about that happening to her. She said she sees men outside her house who carry guns and knives. These unsafe neighborhoods force so many of the children of Baltimore to stay inside, often in front of a television.
Our children need to have safe places to run and play, where they feel safe to express themselves, to move and to be free, and it's up to the community to take action. Fighting back against obesity will improve the overall health of Baltimore, increase our productivity, brighten our futures and decrease our dependence on government aid.
At a community level, we need to use existing resources to make the parks throughout Baltimore safe for our children to use through neighborhood watch efforts and police cooperation. The Northwest area, which includes Druid Hill and Gwynn Oak parks, in particular suffers a high concentration of shootings, assaults, thefts and drug distribution. The high rate of crime makes it dangerous for our kids to not only play in the parks, but to walk to them.
For far too long we have accepted the presence of drugs and the associated crime in our communities. We need to stand in numbers to take our neighborhoods back for ourselves, our children and our futures. Safe parks would drastically increase the opportunity for our children to get out of the house, to run, to play and to simply be kids.
In the Northwest Baltimore school I studied, 30 percent of the children under age 10 were overweight. This is shameful. We have a responsibility to our children and our community to provide our kids with the best opportunities to live healthy and to be competitive in society. Health and fitness is a critical component of a healthy and productive life, and taking back our parks is a critical step to decreasing the rates of childhood obesity in our community.
Making our community parks safe is an obtainable and realistic action that we desperately need to take to protect our children, their futures and the future of our Baltimore communities. It's time for us all to stop ignoring the truth that our children are dangerously overweight and take action to increase the safety of our neighborhood and the health of our children by improving the usability of our parks. The health of our children and our community depend on it.
Elizabeth Goudie is a graduate student in the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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