Latino Kids Are More Obese Than Their Peers for This Insidious Reason

Going to the park to play is pretty impossible when there is no local park.
(Photo: Todd Warnock/Getty Images)
Jan 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

A common complaint about modern kids is that they spend too much time indoors watching television or racking up points on the latest video game—all while noshing on a bag of chips or some other unhealthy junk food. The commonsense alternative to all this screen time, health advocates say, is to send youngsters outside where they can run, jump, and swing from the monkey bars.

A new report from childhood obesity prevention organization Salud America! reveals that following that advice may be especially difficult for Latino kids living in segregated, underserved neighborhoods.

RELATED: City Puts Brakes on Bus Ads That Tell Public About Inequality

The nonprofit organization, which is based at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, analyzed federal data as well as several studies and surveys on race, ethnicity, and access to public recreational space. It found that 81 percent of predominantly Latino neighborhoods lack access to active spaces such as parks and recreation facilities. In comparison, the proportion of predominantly non-Hispanic white neighborhoods with limited physical activity options is less than half that: 38 percent.

The researchers also noted that recent U.S. census data found that nearly 83 percent of white people say their neighborhoods have safe places for kids to play. In comparison, 70 percent of Latino people feel the same way about their neighborhoods.

While childhood obesity is a problem nationally, a post on the Salud America! blog notes that the lack of access to parks and concerns about safety contribute to Latino kids being more overweight or obese than their white peers. Nearly 40 percent of Latino children are overweight or obese, while just under 30 percent of white children are too heavy. It probably doesn’t help that Latino kids are also more likely to live in poverty and in food deserts.

RELATED: These 10 Countries Lead the World in Childhood Obesity (Nope, the U.S. Isn’t No. 1)

“Latino kids don’t get enough exercise, so it’s critical to make parks, school playgrounds, and other recreational sites safer and more accessible to help Latino kids be active and fight obesity,” Amelie G. Ramirez, the director of Salud America! and the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, said in a statement posted on the organization's blog.

To create more space for kids, Salud America! recommends that communities boost the amount of green space and implement safe-space initiatives. An expansion of shared-use agreements—formal contracts that allow residents access to a school or other public property—can also help.

The report notes that several cities in California, which is about 38 percent Latino, have made significant progress in working out these agreements with public schools. Structured physical activity programs at gymnasiums, athletic fields, and other similar facilities located at schools, the report’s authors wrote, are most effective, according to a task force initiated in 2010 to boost physical activity in Los Angeles County.

These programs “attracted 16 times the amount of community members as sites offering no program,” the report says. Although adult-focused programs might not appear to address the issue of childhood obesity, the researchers found that because parents bring their children with them, the entire family engages in physical activity. And with what science is discovering about epigenetics, it may be that the body’s programmed response to food and metabolic influencers can be passed down to future kids too.

Concerns about liability—and cost, as some districts struggle to find the cash to pay teachers—mean figuring out who pays for extra staff to keep a school playground open after hours has limited the growth of shared-use agreements, wrote the report’s authors. But given the multibillion-dollar financial burden on the nation of obesity and related illnesses, ponying up a bit of cash for a custodian seems like the smarter move to make.