We usually think of pandemics as serious diseases that have the potential to hurt thousands if not millions of people through disease. Ironically, a 21st century pandemic is that many in the developed world, through a combination of a sedentary lifestyle, a high-fat diet, and sugary drinks, become obese to the point in which it having a serious negative affect on their health. There is no disagreement in the literature about the link between our overall health concerns and what we eat and drink. Billboards, television, movies and the Internet all sell us a combination of fast and quick foods and diet aids (Fumento, 1998).
On June 22, 2010, President Obama issued an Executive Order to promote fitness in the schools and workplace and has proclaimed May as "National Physical Fitness and Sports Month." The Executive Order states a presidential request that "Americans work toward meeting the National Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans as set by the Department of Health and Human Services." By implementing Healthy Employees Initiative Program (HEIP) within our organization we can provide our employees an incentive to join with other Americans to participate in healthy physical activity, fitness, sports participation, and good nutrition (Obama, 2010).
Studies from such diverse groups as the Rand Corporation, the National Institute of Health, the National Institute on Aging, and the New England Journal of Medicine have all come to the same conclusion -- we are not a healthy nation. Indeed, it is alarming to note that the trend toward obesity has exponentially risen in every single region of the United States since 1991, as reported by the "Get America Fit Foundation" (Obesity Related Statistics in America, 2008). This is a national trend, better or worse in some states and counties. In Santa Barbara County, California, for instance, more than half of all adults are clinically obese; likely do to more than four times as many unhealthy food outlets in the county than healthy eating establishments (CDC, 2011).
Community- Santa Maria, California is a city in Santa Barbara County approximately 120 northwest of Los Angeles. It is the largest city in the county, with a population of just over 100,000 in the city, and the regional area of 171,227. The city is 97% land and has a cool Mediterranean climate typical of coastal California. The region is primarily agriculturally based, with an increasing number of wineries and vineyards contributing to both the economy and tourism. The fields around Santa Maria are among the most productive in the State, producing strawberries, celery, lettuce, peas squash, cauliflower, spinach, broccoli and beans -- largely for export. The city's three top employers are Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Marian Medical Center, and the Santa-Maria Bonita School District. Somewhat due to the influx of dollars from the wine industry and attention to the area, Santa Maria is growing its retail mix, aerospace, high-tech research and development, and manufacturing sectors (A Brief History, 2011; Census Bureau, 2011).
Demographics -- Santa Maria has a population density of 4,255 people per square mile. About 99% of the population live in households, with the remainder in non-institutionalized group homes or correctional facilities. About 50% of the households have children under 18 still living at home. The average household size is 3.66 and 76% of all households have more than one person living. Only 9% of the households have someone over 65 living (See Figures 1 and 2 for racial and age breakdown) (U.S. Census).
In the Bunny Avenue Area of Santa Maria, for instance, the population of 12,445 has 61% of people living in poverty and 53% overweight. There are no supermarkets, no farmer's markets, and very few healthy eating alternatives. There are, however, 9 fast-food outlets, 7 convenience stores, and 3 small markets -- with the ratio of fast-food outlets to the population as 1:1383 (Santa Barbara Public Health, 2011).
Problem- Since the early 1980, fast-food restaurants have grown exponentially, claiming an increasingly large share of America's food budget. Eating in this type of restaurant, particularly with the industry's increase in portion size, is associated with higher caloric intake, lower vegetable consumption, and higher rates of obesity, emptier, sweet calories, and a general degradation of balance diets. In fact, on a typical day, over 30% of America's children eat one fast food meal -- and it is not uncommon for one fast-food meal to have as many calories as recommended for that child for the entire day (Jeffery, et.al., 2006).
While Americans are living longer, there are far more issues that occur based almost entirely on our diet: heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. If obesity were curtailed, we would see a significant decrease in both diabetes and other cardiovascular issues. The costs from obesity continue to rise -- California, for instance spends almost $8 billion a year on issues relating to obesity (Get Fit America). Federally, almost $150 billion is spent on the top five diseases, most of it related to obesity (Unhealthy America, 2006). In the Bunny Avenue Area of Santa Maria, the problem is more complex -- with 4 schools and a large ratio of fast-food restaurants, coupled with a poor population and lack of stores with healthy alternatives, the population has little food choices, compounding the problem for children, particularly (SB Public Health).
In Santa Barbara County, the marketing of fast foods often transcends any other offer of healthy, or whole foods. Transportation options are lacking, most food stores in the county have large alcohol and junk food sections, and only 3 out of 24 stores meet basic quality standards. Residents report being unable to afford healthy foods even when available, and complain about the quality of the produce that arrives in their neighborhood (SB Public Health). One might ask, how can this be when the agricultural area surrounding the city is so rich and vibrant with fresh, healthy produce almost year round?
Significance This is particularly serious in the contemporary world concerning children. Childhood obesity is becoming epidemic in the developed world, and is a condition in which excess body fat negatively affects a child's health. There are a number of effects this has on children, so many that it has become a public health concern that has reached national proportions (Kopelman, 2005, 493). The information age in which we live certainly has changed education, the way children learn, and how much information they can easily access. Unfortunately, a combination of these changes has resulted in a rising prevalence of obesity in children which, in combination with numerous negative health effects has resulted in a public health epidemic (Kopelman, 2005, 49). This trend has become so serious that First Lady Michelle Obama has declared it to be a national health hazard, and placed it as one of her top priorities. The subject is now part of a national political task force, with the goal of eliminating the problem within one generation (Ferran, 2010). We are not educating our California children in either healthy eating alternatives, nor are we providing them with alternatives in the form of sporting, exercise, or non-sedentary activities. The tendency towards obesity, Type-II diabetes, and related other conditions will cost the country billions of dollars. Instead, would it not be wiser to spend upfront to prevent future problems? With a healthier population, downtime at work would be less, productivity would rise, fewer people would require disability due to conditions brought about by obesity, and healthcare dollars could be spent on more diseases that are more difficult to cure.
Conclusions: Due to the pandemic nature of this issue, and more specifically the lack of appropriate resources in the Santa Maria area, there are five basic steps that could be taken to drastically alleviate the obesity problem in the area:
1. Provide parent education classes in nutrition education, given by nutritionists, chefs, or public health officials. Partner with agricultural growers to provide access to healthier food alternatives.
2. Provide a USDA subsidized school breakfast program. Hungry children cannot learn, and if they get into the habit of eating healthier, there is a larger chance they will learn to crave healthier foods.
3. Encourage, if at all possible, through local community action programs, healthier stocking of foods at the stores that are in the area. Work with the state and Federal governments to help find funding for healthier restaurants and grocery outlets.
4. Provide health snacks for schools mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks; use as part of the curriculum to get students in the habit of asking for fresh fruit instead of chips, etc.
5. Partner with local "Farmer's Markets" and other gardening and/or organic organizations to make students aware of what it takes (time and energy) to provide healthy foods. Use the community to reach out to surrounding farmer's markets -- encourage the demand so the supply will arrive (Flinchbaugh and Felts, 1989).
A Brief History of Santa Maria. (2011). Retrieved from: http://www.ci.santa-maria.ca.us/history.html
Obesity Related Statistics in America. (2008, June). Retrieved from Get America Fit: http://www.getamericafit.org/statistics-obesity-in-america.html