SHIP Minnesota Promotes Healthy Eating For All Our Children

The stress, isolation and unpredictability of COVID-19 has resulted in weight gain in many Americans and a few silly memes (including a portly Kermit the Frog). But unwanted weight gain is no cause for laughter, especially in children, of whom nearly one in six are considered obese.

A new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has found that the pandemic has exacerbated already alarming trends for children, especially children of color and those from low-income families. While Minnesota is doing better than most states, we’ve barely achieved health parity. Kristine Igo, Director of the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP), shares ideas for making sure all of our children grow up healthy.

Q: Please tell us about SHIP.

A: SHIP was started in 2008 by a bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers to tackle the costly and rapidly accelerating chronic diseases, particularly obesity and smoking, which are the major contributors to chronic disease. We operate in all 87 counties and 10 of the 11 tribal nations, partnering with health care organizations, schools and daycares, towns and local municipalities, construction sites and businesses. The goal is to create more opportunities and reduce barriers so that all Minnesotans can be more physically active, eat healthier and live without commercial tobacco.

Q: But we have to note that some Minnesotans thrive while others struggle. The RWJF report found that in Minnesota, 11.7% of young people between the ages of 10 and 17 are obese, tied for the eighth lowest rate in the country. (The national rate is 16%.) Yet even here we face large disparities among our children.

A: Many Minnesota youth with higher obesity rates live in food deserts, like many rural and tribal communities, where they do not have access to a nearby grocery store with healthy food. But we also face food “swamps”, which are communities inundated with fast food and too many unhealthy food choices. We find that more often than not in our urban communities, the socio-economic threshold may be lower, wages lower, and few employment options. As much as we talk about Minnesota’s success, so much we have disparities perpetuated by structural and systemic inequalities.

Q: How do you start to solve this problem?

A: SHIP is hitting all corners of the state, working with community leaders and local public health teams to identify where there is the greatest need for support and resources. We are working with schools to incorporate more activities into their school day, buying more bikes and teaching children to drive. We also work closely with city planners, managers and mayors on transportation planning to change the landscape in which people live. It could mean introducing more bike lanes, more walking spaces, slowing down traffic. But it’s also about understanding that community members have different perceptions of what it means to feel safe. An African American man may not feel safe when he goes for a run. How to approach the concept of security for all racial and ethnic communities?

Q: Preliminary research suggests these problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Help us make the connection.

A: Without one, or sometimes two, free school meals, families also faced challenges. To help address this issue, emergency food infrastructure has expanded across the state. Many of our school districts have worked hand in hand with public health partners to provide free meals to children and their families that have been distributed to schools and community recreation centers or delivered to children in their homes. And we thought creatively about how to provide advice on how people could be active during the pandemic.

Q: What about the children’s palace? How to make children love kale?

A: School food service directors talk a lot about the need to introduce foods two or three times before children turn to those foods. But with income inequality, your funds are limited, so what you can afford often means products high in fat and salt.

Q: So what you can afford to put on the table isn’t the healthiest option?

A right. But it is difficult to put the blame or the burden on the parents. It is less an individual choice than what influences that choice. If you have two jobs and take the bus, it will also limit the time you have to prepare a meal. Lean meats are more expensive and require cooking time and they also require cooking. No wonder many people default to prepackaged foods that are widely available.

Q: How important is it to involve parents or other key adults in the conversation about the child’s weight and overall well-being?

A: SHIP works in many settings, in schools, health systems, workplaces and daycare centers. You often work with multigenerational families. At school, you can help them change their taste preferences, but you also want to send recipes home. Along with tribal children, elders and families come together in community kitchens to reintroduce indigenous culinary knowledge and prepare meals together. Parents need all the support they can get.

Q: How about a success story?

A: One of our biggest successes is changing the food options in convenience stores. Now you can stop at a gas station with sections offering whole and healthy food options. We reduce the food desert problem, but if one grocery store closes, you have another desert.

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