COVID-19 and childhood obesity: ‘Pandemic within a pandemic'

Posted at 12:09 PM, Apr 13, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. — Dr. Melanie Bean has dedicated her life to treating and researching childhood obesity.

As co-director of the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU Healthy Lifestyle Center, she’s seen the direct impacts of the pandemic on children’s weight.

“There’s been sadly no shortage of referrals as we are watching weight gains skyrocket,” she said.

“They used to walk to school or ride their bike and a lot of these things have really just changed. Kids are sitting a lot and all the time,” Bean explained. “We have a pandemic within a pandemic I think that’s highlighted these inequities.”

Children who rely on schools for three meals a day can sometimes go without as students learn virtually at home. Bean advocated for getting kids back in school, but to do it safely.

“We’ve seen again and again how important these school meals are for nutrition security for kids, reducing their obesity risk, reducing their hunger,” she stated.

During the height of the pandemic, families purchased food to last to avoid contracting the virus or stayed close to home when choosing where to pick up dinner.

“When you’re in a neighborhood where your local market is a convenience store, it’s less access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Bean said.

Nearly 1.2 million Virginians live in a food desert, according to the most recent 2017 data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In an urban setting, a food desert qualifies if someone has to travel more than a mile away to find affordable and healthy food. If you live in a rural setting, a food desert qualifies as access to a grocery store that’s more than a 30 minutes drive away.

“Everyone was so overwhelmed at the front end of the pandemic and focused appropriately on staying safe and avoiding the virus that I don’t think we spent enough time on some of the secondary effects,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) said during a call with reporters on Monday.

In February, he introduced the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act. The bill, supported by Republicans and Democrats, would provide financial incentives for businesses to open grocery stores in food deserts.

“If we want people to eat healthily they’ve got to have access to healthy choices within a relatively close distance at an affordable price,” Warner stated.

Bean spoke about the bias and discrimination against children who live with obesity.

"A lot of the misconceptions that obesity is purely a result of personal choices," she explained.

Obesity isn't just related to how much you eat or how active you are, according to Bean. Factors like socioeconomic, racial disparities, genetics, and where you live all play a part.

Bean suggested several activities that parents can do right now to live a healthier lifestyle.

“Can we get sugar drinks out of the home and start with that? Can we go back and try to eat more meals as a family with the screens off?” she asked.

As we slowly make our way out of the pandemic, Bean encouraged families to return to pre-lockdown routines. She also urged parents to set a good example for their children.

“Taking your kids for a walk in the park. Everyone going out and doing a family-based activity that doesn’t have to cost any money but involves moving,” Bean explained.

Bean recommended taking your child to a pediatrician if they are concerned about their weight and health.

Dominic Jones easily transformed an East End backyard into a makeshift gymnasium. Jones invited CBS 6 to sit in on his third-grade virtual physical education class on Tuesday.

"Alright, let's go!" Jones told his Carver Elementary third graders.

After a quick warm-up, he encouraged his students to fill a backpack with books or clothes. Jones then led his class through an exercise routine with the backpack.

"You’d be surprised there’s a lot on YouTube that parents and kids can just follow along," he said.

His goal has been to keep his students active during a pandemic that has slowed many of us down.

"They miss school," Jones stated. "They miss being outside on the playground."

Like with his students, Jones said you must get creative to stay active.

"Just get out and go to the park, sometimes it’s really just that simple," he explained. "Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a walk. It starts right there, taking a walk."

The population of Virginians by city/county living in food deserts as defined in Warner’s bill:

Caroline: 3278
Chesterfield: 38638
Cumberland: 10052
Dinwiddie: 12196
Hanover: 4243
Henrico: 39618
James City: 4014
King and Queen: 3881
Nottoway: 9783
Prince George: 8543
Hopewell: 12120
Petersburg: 22639
Richmond City: 62381

Total: 1,186,877

*The most recent year for which data is available is 2017.