Obesity plagues Elm City

Obesity and diabetes are far more prevalent in low-income New Haven neighborhoods than in their high-income counterparts, according to a newly released report by DataHaven, a local non-profit run by a Yale alumnus.

The report concluded that diabetes is three times more prevalent in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and that New Haven’s obesity problem is worse than the national average. While about one-third of children in the U.S. between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or obese, nearly one-half of middle school students in New Haven’s public schools did not meet guidelines for healthy weight, according to the DataHaven report.

In addition to obesity, the study found that economically disadvantaged New Haven residents are almost twice as likely to die from diabetes than the city’s high-income residents. DataHaven’s report highlights a statewide trend of increasing obesity. A study conducted in April by the Connecticut Department of Public Health shows that from 2010 to 2011, the incidence of diagnosed diabetes in Connecticut rose by 2 percent and obesity prevalence increased by one and a half percent.

“There is a clear gradient in the prevalence of both obesity and diabetes by socioeconomic class in CT,” William Garrish, director of the Office of Communications in the Connecticut Department of Public Health, said in an email. He added that the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s data shows that adults with household income less than $25,000 have almost twice the rate of diabetes as the general population, and that low-income adults are much more likely to be obese compared to the general population. A 2010 study by the Connecticut Department of Public Health found that 30.4 percent of people earning less than $25,000 were obese, while 16.8 percent of people earning more than $75,000 were obese.

In New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods, 40 percent of people surveyed were unsure that they would always be able to buy vegetables, according to the DataHaven report.

New Haven is dangerously close to being what is known as a “food desert,” Marlene Schwartz, the director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said. Garrish defined a food desert as an area with limited access to healthy food.

Individuals in urban areas are particularly at risk to live in an area low food access, Garrish said in an email.

There have been recent initiatives at the federal, state and local levels to improve citizens’ diets, Schwartz said. One of the most effective initiatives, Schwartz noted, was a federal tax break for grocery stores selling high-quality, healthful foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole-grain breads and low-fat dairy products.

Although there are no government food programs implemented at the local level, Schwartz said, there is a substantial amount of advocacy for proper nutrition in New Haven. Food pantries and soup kitchens are common in New Haven, and End Hunger Connecticut has a strong presence here, she said.

Challenges for low-income individuals include lack of information about how to manage diabetes and maintain a healthy weight, absence of exercise facilities and healthy food establishments and poor access to health care, Garrish said.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health was recently awarded nearly $8 million in federal funds to address obesity and diabetes. The DPH’s methods will include the promotion of physical activity and the establishment of diabetes prevention programs, Garrish said.

A Community Health Forum, a gathering aiming to engage New Haven residents in discussions of public health, will be held at the Hill Regional Career High School on Thursday night.

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