A small box of fried chicken, fries, and a soda. For Alyssa, a homeless mom in my neighborhood, that's a typical meal that she can bring to her three children—full of calories and fat, but little nutrition.
A third of the homeless population in the United States are obese
. In Baltimore, where I live, there has been a dramatic growth in the homeless population in the past five years, and consequently, a greater number of people vulnerable to obesity.
They are also at high risk of malnutrition. If they have become obese from eating certain foods that only have high contents of fat and little or no nutrition, they can lack the vital nutrients their body needs. This is an especially big problem for children because they need proper nutrition as their muscles, bones, and brain develop rapidly during their growing years.
Besides unhealthy food, another factor that contributes to obesity is an irregular eating schedule, which slows down metabolic processes in the body and converts energy into fat. The combination of high-fat, low-nutrition foods and irregular eating schedules worsens obesity. Sadly, being homeless increases the risk of obesity.
What might help? Eating habits people learn when they’re young tend to stay with us throughout our lives, so I decided to start by working with homeless children. While doing research for my thesis, I partnered with Ark, the only daycare center for homeless children in Baltimore. At our first meeting, Nancy, the director of Ark, told me an interesting story about the eating habits of the children she works with.
Over the past couple of years, she had tried to expose them to as many different healthy foods as possible. It seemed to be working at first but soon she discovered that they went home and were fed unhealthy food. Parents were a barrier between the children and healthy eating. Not because they didn't love their children, but because they themselves had only been exposed to certain kinds of food. They couldn't provide healthy foods to their children unless they knew what it was or why it was good.
With a grant from Whole Foods Market, Ark has started to develop a school garden. In collaboration with Ark, I am developing a food education and training program. This will be a program that seeks to empower, encourage, and inform homeless children (ages 3-5) and their parents about healthy eating. As part of the program, I am designing a toolkit to introduce parents to a wide variety of healthy foods, inform nutritional value, and teach how to prepare newly introduced foods. It will be utilized as a teaching or a playing tool for kids at Ark, and also be used as a guide to healthy food preparation for the parents.
Overweight children have a high chance of becoming overweight adults and their parents play a significant role on the process. The goal of this program is to educate both parents and children, so that the children of our generation can have healthier eating habits throughout their lives. I hope the efforts of this project can contribute to decreasing the obesity rate of homeless children in Baltimore and encourage a lifestyle of healthy eating, which could ultimately lead them to a greater chance of self-sufficiency.
Toolkit image courtesy of Heejin Suh; hamburger image via Shutterstock.