Loudoun County is one of the most affluent counties in the country, yet the childhood obesity rate among low-income residents is almost double the national average.
A two-year $140,000 grant was awarded to the Loudoun County Health Department in April, and Dr. Sina Gallo, a professor in George Mason University’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, has started working with the department to fight childhood obesity among the county’s most vulnerable residents. The grant is from the National Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We brought on Dr. Gallo from GMU to add expertise and academic experience to several pieces of the grant and she and her team are engaged now as an integral part of our team,” Dr. Janine Rethy said. Rethy is the physician advisor for chronic disease prevention at the Loudoun County Health Department.
Rethy has led the team as they have received several federal and local grants over the past three years in the area of obesity and chronic disease prevention, with a particular focus on childhood obesity.
Gallo cited Leesburg and Sterling as having pockets of poverty, and noted the recent immigrant population appears to be at most risk for obesity. They also face additional challenges when it comes to access to healthy food, she said.
“Due to the ‘wealthy county’ title, it’s often difficult to fund social programs for the most vulnerable residents of Loudoun,” Gallo said in a release. “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 and the county will also work closely with the Loudoun Pediatric Obesity Coalition.
“With this funding, our community will implement a program that will bring more fresh, local produce to families who need it most, create a ‘Living Healthy in Loudoun’ resource guide, and help women access breastfeeding services and support in our community” Rethy said.
George Mason students will also 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 in Prince William County but higher than in Fairfax County, though they probably don’t provide an accurate perception of the problem among low-income residents, she said.
About 40 percent of patients under 5-years-old attending a local health center and 50 percent of patients ages 6 to 17 are classified as obese or overweight. About 25 percent of patients between ages 2 and 17 are obese.
Other grant-funded projects will help educate families on eligibility requirements for government assistance and details about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
Although SNAP could provide a remedy for low-income families, Gallo’s previous work found that only one in three families who are potentially eligible for the benefits were actually enrolled, she said.
SNAP enrollment can be vital for low-income families because it makes them automatically eligible for the WIC program, as well as eligible for free and reduced meal programs in schools. Enrollment can also lead to free or reduced costs for sports leagues, afterschool programs and other options for health and wellness, Gallo said.