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Guest view: Fighting obesity in San Joaquin County

Blurred image of a fast food restaurant.
Blurred image of a fast food restaurant.

While popular fast-food chains such as Raising Cane’s and In-N-Out continue to open locations and thrive on hungry stomachs in the North San Joaquin County district, the combined overweight and obesity rate has climbed to greater than 65% of the local population, a historic high.

By emphasizing certain priority communities and engaging with the community to address socioeconomic and ethnic disparities which are at the root of the obesity epidemic, it is not too late to reverse the rates. Exceeding the obesity rate of California by almost 7%, the San Joaquin County public health services have started numerous initiatives to promote active and healthier lifestyles for all members of their community.

Increased obesity rates in San Joaquin County can be attributed to prevalent risk factors such as the lack of access to care, food insecurity, and mental and behavioral health. In the 2022 Community Health Assessment of San Joaquin County, regions were identified as priority neighborhoods recognizing the need for addressing socioeconomic disparities, transportation, housing, and climate issues among other factors.

Physical activity and nutrition are important factors in preventing obesity and obesity related diseases. However, residents in San Joaquin County experience higher rates of poor physical health and heart disease. Not only does obesity occur at higher rates among the adult population, but also among the youth of the county. For children living in San Joaquin County in grades five, seven and nine5, 7, and 9, it was reported that the obesity rate was at 43% compared to the California average of 40%.

Currently, the San Joaquin Valley has two primary publicly funded and operated public health service programs to combat the rising rates of obesity. The first is the Network Campaign, a project specifically focused on advocating for individualized nutrition and exercise targeted toward low-income residents. This program utilizes a social media campaign and afterschool programs to reach students in lower socioeconomic schools, and partners with those schools to integrate healthy eating habits into the school curriculum. Success has been found particularly in food demonstrations and integration with physical education courses.

The second program is the south Stockton-based Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program. This program promotes policy and environmental changes to establish the foundation for building healthy habits, working to create safe play areas and access to healthy food.

In 2009, San Joaquin County established an Obesity and Chronic Disease Prevention Task Force in order to decrease the incidence and prevalence of obesity in the county. While the recognition and formation of an organization to combat obesity is a huge step, effective implementation and consistency will be the true test.

San Joaquin County Public Health Services also provides educational resources to introduce healthy eating and active habits at a young age. They partner with Leah’s Pantry to provide nutrition and food preparation classes. The CATCH program, or Coordinated Approach to Child Health, provides a platform to encourage families to engage in physical activity.

Moreover, CalFresh benefits, a food assistance program provided by the California Department of Social Services, is also a resource available for individuals and families with low income. This food assistance program provides monthly food benefits and is intended to promote healthier eating by purchasing nutritious food such as fruits and vegetables. CalFresh benefits can also be used at farmers markets, offering individuals with access to fresh produce. Interested readers should visit their website: getcalfresh.org.

As different fast food and fast casual dining options become more popular than the previous mom-and-pop shops and more traditional farm-to-table restaurants, further efforts should be made to enhance educational programs that promote healthy lifestyles and support policies that aid underserved communities to combat the widespread and harmful effects of obesity.

Guneet Gill and Stephen Gong-Guy are students in the Doctor of Dental Surgery program, and Parvati Iyer and David Ojcius are professors at the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry.

This article originally appeared on The Record: Taking steps to combat obesity in San Joaquin County