The Bentley Street Playground in the Mount Hope section of Providence. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)
Almost half of children ages 2 to 17 in Rhode Island’s urban core are overweight or obese, according to a new report from Rhode Island Kids Count.
The report, entitled “Root Causes of Overweight and Obesity: Community Driven Solutions to Address Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Rhode Island,” found 49% of children in the four urban municipalities of Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket are overweight or obese compared to 34% in Rhode Island’s remaining 35 municipalities.
“The numbers are pretty astounding but not really surprising,” said Dr. Celeste Corcoran, a pediatric obesity specialist at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. “It’s quite obvious that there are a lot of inequities in the treatment of children who are overweight and obese.”
Though more pronounced in the urban core, the upward trend in weights was almost universal. Statewide, there was a 4% increase from 35% recorded in 2016, to 39% in 2021.
Only 11 municipalities — mostly rural or middle-income to wealthy suburbs — showed little to no change in obesity rates. They include: Barrington, East Greenwich, Foster, Glocester, Jamestown, Little Compton, Middletown, Narragansett, New Shoreham, Portsmouth, and Richmond.
Data from the report showed that 52% of Latino children are overweight or obese, the highest for any racial or ethnic group in the state. That number is 46% for Black children, 33% for white children, and 38% for those of other races.
The most overweight racial and ethnic groups examined also happened to be the most food insecure — defined as those not always having access to enough food for an active, quality life — according to the report. About 47% of Latino households are food insecure compared to 43% for Black households and 26% of white households.
Kids Count Policy Analyst Kaitlyn Rabb said much of the discrepancies are related to food access and the built environments where children are located; as well as poverty often concentrated in urban communities.
“Health care only accounts for about 10% to 20% of health outcomes,” Rabb said. “The rest come from things like income, insurance, education, and built environment.”
Rabb said that densely populated urban zones often lack safe areas and green spaces for children to play and participate in physical activities. That is equally as much a function of guardians having to work multiple jobs to survive.
“Most of the kids I treat don’t have access to much physical activity,” Corcoran said. “Their families are working, and they don’t have access to many school-based programs that allow for physical activity.”
The report built upon previous research on obesity from Kids Count and included community outreach to include voices from those most affected. They partnered with groups like Progreso Latino, a Central Falls-based advocacy group, to get their input.
“There was a lot of insightful information from the community which really stood out,” Rabb said. She added that many immigrant families — regardless of status — struggle with low income that impedes access to healthy foods, transportation, and even gym memberships.
“That makes it difficult for parents and families to really invest when there are so many things and stressors,” she said. “It’s great to kind of have the stories and lived experience behind some of the barriers we’re facing to healthy food choices and physical activity.”
In addition, Rabb said food pantries expanding their operating hours in order to help working families access proper nutrition would be helpful in addressing the crisis.
The experts added that work needs to be done around the social stigma attached to obesity in order to address it.
“These are kids that are being bullied about their weight which is clearly not going to help their image and self-confidence,” Corcoran said. “If it starts in kindergarten and first grade that trauma is something they’re going to carry with them.”
Corcoran said that Rhode Island needs to get a handle on the situation soon if it is to improve the health of its residents in the future. She added that though there were many isolated programs and approaches to tackle the crisis, more unified action is needed.
“The numbers are very bad and they’re not going to get better,” she said. “Unless we make structural changes in these children’s environments.
“We need to see obesity as a disease like cancer is a disease,” Corcoran continued. “That will help us focus our structural efforts on tackling it.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.