One of the more hopeful signs in the community is the opportunity to access healthy food, especially for children and students. Because of the high rate of poverty in Cowlitz County, nearly a third of the population receives SNAP (Food Stamps) benefits. Changes in eligibility and limiting assistance is beginning to cause a reduction in overall SNAP benefits in the County, but they remain one of the primary food sources for many families. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is also a major contributor to the accessibility of nutritious foods. In 2013 the Cowlitz Family Health Center, the WIC contractor for Cowlitz County, provided assistance to 4,461 infants and children under five. A total of 6,167 patients were seen including 1,706 pregnant, breast-feeding, or postpartum women. The WIC program was responsible for more than $2.4 million of food purchases in the County, and another $190,000 for the fruits and vegetables program. The Farmers Market certificates are very popular and are exhausted quickly. They provided an additional $8,000 towards the purchase of healthy foods for low income families.
Access to healthy food and basic nutrition are an important element of our determinants of health. Good food is important for growth and development in children, health in adults, and social cohesion by families eating together. Growing your own food provides physical activity, fresh local food in your diet, and access to affordable food. Sometimes, this determinant is most recognizable when assessing those who don’t have access to healthy foods. In children it can mean dental problems, failure to thrive, lack of academic success, and poor self-esteem. Hunger is a wicked problem for children. The 2015 County Health Rankings reported that 10% of Cowlitz County residents have limited access to healthy foods, compared to a state average of 5%. The rate of food insecurity was 17% for those individuals unsure of when and where their next meal was coming from, compared to a 15% average in Washington State. Participation in the local FISH Food Banks reported the number of households served in March 2010 was 1,908, and in 2015 was 2,286. In 2015 39.7% of the FISH food bank participants were children under 18 years of age. This is up from 35.5% in 2010.
Public schools in Cowlitz County are a vital source of nutrition for children through the National School Lunch Program, also known as the Free and Reduce Lunch Program, by the US Department of Agriculture. In the past two years the USDA has introduced new nutrition standards for school lunches that reduce sodium and sugar while increases the number of grains, fruits and vegetables. Many schools have worked hard to be creative and prepare meals that students like within the new standards, while others have struggled. Even with the political challenge of Congress attempting to change the implementation of the nutrition standards, the program still remains a critical nutrition resource for children. In Cowlitz County, 53% of the children have qualified for free or reduced lunches compared to a rate of 46% across the state. School districts like Kelso and Longview have rates higher than the smaller rural schools in Cowlitz County. In some schools, like Wallace Elementary in Kelso, more than 90% of the children receive free and reduced lunches. An additional value of the lunch program and its eligibility, is that it helps justify additional resources for districts and individual schools because of the demonstrated rate of poverty.
The Longview school district has been accepted as a member of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. This is a four-year commitment that looks at staff and student wellness through a variety of measures, including meal preparation, selection, and physical activity. Some schools already experiment with the lunch after recess program that helps encourage children to be better prepared to learn by eating nutritiously. The Washington State Legislature is considering a bill to fund hydration stations in schools, as well as a program known as breakfast after the bell, which will further promote nutritious food and healthy eating.
The impact of nutrition from schools does not end with the school bell as many of them are offering afterschool programming through 21st Century Grants or the Longview Parks and Recreation department. Nutritious snacks are an important part of the afterschool programs. Other community organizations, such as Altrusa, have supported Backpack Buddies which is a program that collects and packs food and backpacks for children to take home on Friday so they are assured of having something to eat throughout the weekend. It remains a challenge however during school holidays and summer vacation to be able to reach these same children.
A fast-growing and popular program is school gardens, especially through Lower Columbia School Gardens. Today there are 14 Gardens under production plus a combination school and community garden at Castle Rock High School and another at Kalama High School. Teachers and parents are finding that involving children in gardening has the benefit of teaching science and increasing physical activity, as well as nutrition. School gardens provide a new curriculum for teachers and staff to use to promote healthy eating. A goal is for children who have never known where a carrot comes from, let alone seen one growing or pulled it out of the ground, to develop a lifelong appreciation of the food they’ve grown and eaten. This is a skill they can continue to appreciate and value throughout their lifetime. The Castle Rock school garden, which is maintained by students, provides food to the food bank and senior center as well as to the students. It is a proven working model in that community.
Many groups also participate in food drives to support the food banks and Help Warehouse. These efforts led by students, businesses, churches, and other organizations are an integral part of the food network in Cowlitz County and improve the availability of food to many low income children, families, and senior citizens.
Two local programs, one new and one expanding, are providing access to healthy foods. The Lower Columbia CAP owns and manages the Grounds for Opportunity Café in Kelso which is a social entrepreneurial effort that provides meals to the senior citizen population, meals to the public, and has a learning platform for adults wanting to train for a career in food service. Students who complete the program are placed in kitchens and restaurants throughout Southwest Washington. Additionally, WSU Extension has been aggressively introducing and promoting classes in Cowlitz County on subjects ranging from how to grow tomatoes or build a compost pile, to how to can and manage family resources. These mostly free classes fill a need for many adults when no other gardening information is available to them.
All of these programs and activities are focused on healthy eating, and more importantly reducing youth and adult obesity in the community. In the Healthy Youth Survey, 33% of local 12th graders are considered obese or overweight, a rate higher than the 24% in the state of Washington. The survey also found that 85% did not eat the recommended five fruits or vegetables daily, which is again higher than the state rate of 78%. Along with providing nutritious meals, there is much work remaining to be done in schools through physical activity and other resources that, when combined with nutritious healthy foods, will help improve the overall health of the student.
- Plant an extra row and donte to local food banks and feeding programs
- Support local food drives
- Buy locally grown and produced foods
- Reduce consumption of sugary foods with little nutritional value
- Encourage and support farm to institution programs
- Learn about healthy weight and the health value for individuals
- Support gardens at every school
- Preference given by Institutions to buying locally grown and produced foods
- Plant urban orchards
- Provide incentives for low-income households to use Farmers Markets
- Plan transportation systems that provide access to gardens, Framers Markets, and food distribution sites
- Fund small farm entrepreneurs
- Limit growth of fast food businesses
- Require nutrition decision prompts in restaurants and institutions
- Write development standards that promote access to health foods