My role as a pediatrician frequently involves advocating for a child in many small ways in their daily lives. During the course of one visit, I may send a note to their teacher or school asking that they get appropriate accommodations to learn at their best potential, brainstorm with their parents to draft a plan to limit social media use and other screen time, and later, call the pharmacy to make sure they can get a needed medication. All of these efforts are to improve one child’s health incrementally. This fall, I plan to advocate for all children at the ballot box, and anyone can do that, even without a medical degree.
Recently, attention has been drawn to differences in health equity based on race and economic status. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed long-standing disparities in health care access and outcomes with more minority children and adults falling ill. However, previous research identified concerning differences in other health outcomes, including in rates of obesity and its associated chronic illnesses. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables can be affected by where one lives; areas known as food deserts lack grocery stores, meaning that the community often shops for groceries at corner stores with more shelf-stable food or rely on fast food for meals. One person or family’s access to resources to improve their health is affected by personal income level but this can be mitigated by public policies and laws that support nutrition, education, housing, and healthcare services and assistance. When you vote to expand these systems, it helps eliminate disparities between communities by providing a strong foundation regardless of personal resources.
The community that I serve in southwest Houston includes many minority children, and I see high levels of obesity and the early onset of associated conditions like prediabetes, high blood pressure, and fatty liver disease. Rates in Houston are higher than in Texas or the rest of the United States; by some estimates, more than one in three children in Houston are overweight or obese. My goal is to encourage healthy diets and activity levels that will change the course of their outcomes. By acting early in childhood, we can prevent the devastating consequences of diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
Public policy and legal guidelines about school nutrition can have strong influences on a child’s daily food choices. Many children eat both breakfast and lunch at school, meaning that half of their daily intake is coming from school meals. Serving nutritious meals at school is vital to a child’s overall health to complement the balanced meals that parents are striving to offer at home. Your elected officials at every level can impact the content of nutrition guidelines.
The United States Department of Agriculture sets basic standards for schools across the country. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act established science-based nutrition standards with a focus on whole grains, low sodium, and healthy milk options. In 2018, these guidelines were rescinded under the guise of flexibility and allowed for more sodium, less whole grains, and flavored milk, which is typically higher in sugar. Multiple professional groups, including the American Heart Association, opposed these changes due to the potential for detrimental effects.
At the state level, a bill introduced in the Texas Senate during the last legislative session went into effect in September 2019 that created a pilot program to study the effect of incentives for buying fresh, locally-grown produce for those with SNAP benefits. This is potentially a great way to encourage fruits and vegetables in the diet and there may be room to expand the program based on the results. There’s still plenty of work to be done in this arena, and we want officials who are willing to try innovative ideas like this to benefit Texans of any age.
If you care about improving the nutrition of all children so that they can stay focused in school and establish lifelong healthy habits, elect officials at every level that have priorities aligned with yours. Check out vote.org, harrisvotes.com, or votetexas.gov for more information on polling locations and verifying which forms of IDs are acceptable. To avoid long lines and crowds, early voting is an option from October 13th through October 30th, ahead of election day on November 3rd. Make a plan to use your voice to speak for children.