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Slim Chances: A Pound of Cure

Elizabeth Willis
Battle Creek Enquirer
April 19, 2010

A stray bullet created in one family a belief that their neighborhood was unsafe for child's play.

It has been four years since 10-year-old Hexxon Villa was the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting; still the family's health has suffered physically and mentally.

In broken English, his 44-year-old father, Filiberto Villa Gomez, expressed the family's frustration by saying simply, "Our neighborhood is not good."

Hexxon had been riding a bicycle with his big brother, also named Filiberto, when the two saw men flashing guns through the windows of an SUV passing their home on Post Avenue. Just inside the front door, their mother Emerita was preparing dinner for the family.

As the men turned the car around for a second run at a house a few doors down from the Villas', Hexxon leapt up the stairs of his home. On the second step, he collapsed. A bullet intended for his neighbors struck him in the buttocks.

That was the last time the family felt comfortable walking or playing in their neighborhood. Instead of playing soccer at a nearby park, they built a sound studio in their basement. Instead of riding bicycles or walking through their neighborhood, they drive to perceived safer parks on Battle Creek's south side.

"When the shot happened, we stayed more inside the house because my sons were not comfortable out," his dad, Filiberto Villa Gomez said.

Neighborhood safety is one factor among many in the nation's convoluted fight against childhood obesity. But it's a fight highlighted by some eye-opening statistics and one influential mother's dedication to eliminating childhood obesity within a generation.

A call to health

First Lady Michelle Obama recently called on the nation to reverse some staggering statistics before it is too late for this young generation, whose members, she said, are the first in history heading toward a shorter life-expectancy than their parents.

"Today it's time for a moment of truth for our nation," she said at a press conference Feb. 9. "The truth is our kids didn't do this to themselves."

America spends nearly $150 billion every year to treat obesity-related conditions, and that number is growing, according to Obama's Let's Move initiative.

In a nation leading the developing world in childhood obesity, Calhoun County and Michigan are above average.

A total of 30.5 percent in Calhoun County high school students are overweight and obese, compared to 29.1 percent of Michigan students and 28.8 percent of U.S. students, according to the same Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted surveys.

The number could be higher in Battle Creek, where DayOne Family Healthcare recently discovered that 38 percent of its patients ages 5 to 17 had unhealthy weights. Among them, 19 percent were obese, Office Manager Sheryl Tuck said.

"That was shocking to us," she said.

Among Calhoun County's high school students, more are obese than overweight. Obesity is defined as being in the 95th percentile or above for a person's height, weight and sex; being overweight means a person is between the 85th and 95th percentiles.

In Calhoun County, 15.8 percent of ninth- and 11th-graders anonymously surveyed in 2007 were obese; 14.7 were overweight, according to the most recent data released by the Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Obesity rising

Obesity rates have been increasing at an alarming pace, said Dr. Judith Palfrey, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics at a White House press conference Feb. 9 where Obama unveiled a national plan to tackle childhood obesity.

"We face a medical and moral imperative to rescue our children's health," Palfrey said.

The percent of obese high school students rose to 13.0 percent in 2007 from 10.7 percent 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

During the same time period, fewer students reported eating fruits and vegetables at least five times per day. In Michigan, less than half of high school students said in 2007 they got the recommended level of physical activity, defined as movement that raises their heart beats and made them breathe hard for at least 60 minutes a day on five or more days a week. That concerns 28-year-old mother Dixie Ferguson of Battle Creek, who as a medical imaging technologist said she sees the lifelong problems childhood obesity can lead to, including heart disease and diabetes. She wants to teach her 6-year-old daughter Madeline good habits now so she can have a healthy future.

"It seems that once you get onto a pattern, it's really hard to break out of it," she said. "If you can avoid it at a young age and get good patterns and good healthy eating and exercise and stuff ahead of time, you can just avoid a myriad of problems down the road."

Why kids are gaining weight

Childhood obesity's causes are complex, and solving what Obama has called a national crisis won't be easy.

For the first time in history, American children might face a shorter life expectancy than their parents not because they have too little, but because they have too much.

Families are inundated by too much food, too many advertisements, and too much driving around hurriedly from place to place, Palfrey said. At the same time, some communities lack access to healthy, affordable foods and places where children can play safely.

Here in Battle Creek, 6-year-old Damian is a perfect example of an advertiser's dream come true, his mother Jessie Torres, 24, said.

"He wants every toy and he remembers the commercials, and he doesn't get to watch that much TV," she said. "They could sell anything to my son."

Torres said her kitchen table is already a battlefield, where she uses negotiation, punishment and coercion to get her son to eat enough fruits and vegetables. Direct marketing to children only weakens her defense.

Knowing what's best for children to eat can be extremely confusing, Torres said.

She took nutrition education classes through a Women, Infants and Children program for low-income families when she was a teenager and pregnant with Damian. She said it taught her to see through some advertisers' claims.

"I think a lot of things that say they have real fruit in them or they are sugar free, you think that's more healthy than it is," she said. "Or serving sizes always get me, because it will say, like, oh only this many calories, but that's like six chips."

Torres said she still struggles to calculate caloric, fat, fiber and vitamin intake using nutrition labels.

"I think it could definitely get a lot more user friendly," she said of nutrition labeling. "The thing for me that gets the most confusing ... when you have a meal like spaghetti, how are you supposed to figure out, this has this much in calories but I'm going to add this much of this. I don't know. I think it's really crazy."

Less activity in schools

Another problem is schools devoting less time to physical activity, teaching students that academics trump health.

Brad Yoder, a third-grade teacher at Urbandale Elementary School, said his students get about a half-hour less recess time than he did as child because of pressure to meet required educational benchmarks. He also is concerned that students who are overweight are prone to bullying.

"I just think an extra 30 minutes for kids that might just go home and play video games and watch TV all day long could make a big difference," he said. "You've seen somewhat of a shift in lunches at school to make sure they are a little more healthy, which is good to see, but I really think that physical activity is a big part of it."

Too busy

Above all, parents are frustrated that, with school, work, recitals, sports and homework, it's becoming harder to make healthy choices.

"Everybody gets real busy and ... maybe you are sick that day or stressed that day and the first thing you do is go out to eat," said Tina Bickford, a 43-year-old Battle Creek mother of two sons, ages 10 and 21. "I can't even get myself away from that."

Ferguson said not just restaurants, but the quality of food people eat at home can be a problem. Dinner for many busy families is a bowl of macaroni and cheese tossed in the microwave or chicken nuggets in the toaster oven.

"You just end up with a lot of processed foods that way," she said. "It's quick and easy, which matches the lifestyle that most of us lead where you have a half hour to quick throw some food together and leave."
Food deserts

Lacking access to quality foods can be a problem, especially when living in a food desert. Food deserts are places where it is difficult to get quality, affordable food on a regular basis.

More specifically, Obama's Let's Move initiative says if the nearest supermarket or large grocery store is more than one mile from your home, you live in a food desert.

Battle Creek is fortunate to have several grocery stores throughout the city -- from a cluster of big box supermarkets on Beckley Road to Pennfield's Family Fare -- not to mention Horrocks Farm Market in the city's center near some of the city's most impoverished areas.

Horrocks serves a wide variety of fresh foods, accepts food stamps and is located near bus lines.

But food deserts do exist around Battle Creek, including most of Springfield, Level Park and parts of Emmett Township and Capital Avenue Northeast.

Ironically, one of the city's highest income areas along Goguac Lake is within a desert, suggesting that access to transportation is more important than where you live in Battle Creek, Calhoun County Public Health Department's Health Officer Jim Rutherford said.

An estimated 2.3 percent of Calhoun County households have no car and live more than one mile from a grocery store, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. That's low compared to other U.S. counties, but still a problem.

"It's nothing for you or I to hop in our car to drive between two to six miles to get groceries for the week or to pick up some essentials for the weekend," Rutherford said. "It's a much different situation when you are having to rely on public transportation."

Another problem is when smaller grocers and convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods sell fresh foods at high costs.

"I can get a couple pounds of bananas at Meijer for a dollar something, whereas you go to some of these convenience stores and a banana is 79 cents, 99 cents," he said.

Fear prevents outdoor activity

Generations ago, parents commonly sent their kids outside to play until dinner was ready. Those days are dwindling as fewer parents are willing to let their child roam unattended.

Bickford said her Lakeview neighborhood could be safer for her 10-year-old son.

"We have a lot of children in our neighborhood and there's always somebody out watching them," she said. "Is it the safest? No. Do I feel that it's bad enough to keep him in? No."

Emerita Padilla Gonzales, mother of Hexxon and Filiberto Villa, is a former aerobics instructor who used to love walking a circuit around Post Park on Battle Creek's east side after dropping her sons at school. Her husband said she would eat a bag of apples daily to stay fit and trim in her native Mexico.

The park's roaming dogs and bench bums didn't bother her. But the idea that her son might have died, had he been a step lower on the porch when he was shot, has kept her from walking unnecessarily outdoors.

When they bought the house nearly seven years ago, the neighborhood was a quiet place to raise their children. It has changed and so has their health.

Padilla Gonzales limits herself now to exercise on a stationary aerobic machine in her office and walks, though not in her own neighborhood. Her weight has increased along with her husband.

They said police have been patrolling the neighborhood more often this year. The police presence gives them confidence that the area could return to being safe; for now, they continue to go to Riverside Park or the Battle Creek Family YMCA for recreation.

"We hope (for) change, but, I don't know," her husband said.





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