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Mason nutrition program receives grant to tackle childhood obesity in Loudoun County

September 20, 2016   /   by Jamie Rogers


The childhood obesity rates in one of the richest counties in the United States create a paradox of circumstances for its low-income residents, who are often left with less money to buy healthy foods after paying housing expenses.

Loudoun County’s median household income for 2014 was $122,294, more than double that of the national median household income, according to Loudoun County government data.

Sina Gallo, a professor in George Mason University’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, is working with the Loudoun County Health Department on a two-year, $140,000 grant to fight childhood obesity among the county’s most vulnerable residents.

“Low income residents are particularly challenged because of the high costs [of living], which result in a lack of access to affordable healthy foods and physical activity programs,” Gallo said.

“In addition, due to the ‘wealthy county’ title, it’s often difficult to fund social programs for the most vulnerable residents of Loudoun.”

There are pockets of poverty in Leesburg and Sterling, she said. “Recent immigrants appear to be at most risk for obesity,” Gallo said.

They also face additional challenges when it comes to access to healthy food.

“We recently conducted a focus group with county residents and found they travel 45 minutes to one hour to shop for more affordable and culturally acceptable fruits and vegetables,” Gallo said.

She and the health department will also work closely with the Loudoun Pediatric Obesity Coalition on the grant, which is from the National Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

George Mason students will work with Gallo on surveying families participating in WIC, a supplemental nutrition assistance program for pregnant women and their children, on family health, nutrition and breastfeeding practices.

“This will provide a comprehensive needs assessment to help develop and target effective interventions for high-risk Loudoun County residents,” Gallo said.

Studies show that pediatric obesity rates among Loudoun children are lower than Prince William County but higher than Fairfax County, although they probably don’t provide an accurate perception of the problem among low-income residents, she said.

Loudoun’s pediatric obesity rate among its low-income population is roughly double that of the county’s population as a whole. About 40 percent of patients under 5 years old attending a local health center and 50 percent of patients between 6 and 17 years are classified as obese or overweight. About 25 percent of patients between ages 2 and 17 are obese.

Other grant-funded projects will help needy families by explaining  eligibility requirements for government assistance and providing details about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

Gallo’s previous work found that only one in three families who are potentially eligible for food stamp benefits were actually enrolled, she said.

“We are hoping to increase the number of SNAP-eligible families who are receiving SNAP and focusing on using the SNAP application as a gateway for accessing other benefits,” she said.

SNAP enrollment means automatic eligibility for the WIC program and for a free and reduced meals program in schools, which also can lead to free or reduced costs for sports leagues, afterschool programs and other options for health and wellness, she said.

They will also work with local businesses in developing and implementing breastfeeding support policies in the workplace to make it easier for women to reach breastfeeding goals.