by:  Sheila Pratt

EDMONTON – Edmonton is losing the battle against obesity among teenagers while a whopping two-thirds of families don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, says a report released Tuesday.

The city’s rate of overweight and obese youth is rising, as it is across the country, said Dr. Christopher Sikora, Edmonton’s chief medical officer of health, on Tuesday.

Though Edmonton incomes are generally higher than in the rest of Canada ($57,200 median income compared with $50,700 nationally), that extra cash is not necessarily being spent by families on healthy food, according to the report Vital Signs, which offers a snapshot of community health and economic indicators. It was released by the Edmonton Social Planning Council and the Edmonton Community Foundation.

Only 36 per cent of Edmontonians managed to eat their five daily servings of fruit and vegetables – less than the national average of 40 per cent, says the report.

Sikora said the rising rate of obese and overweight children means many young people are heading for health problems as adults.

The city needs a strategy that tackles both problems – getting people more active and reducing “over consumption” of unhealthy food, he said.

“People need 30 to 60 minutes of activity, and children even more, and sadly they aren’t getting it,” he said.

Poor nutrition is also connected to higher rates of diabetes in the Edmonton area – 5.6 per cent compared with the provincial rate of 5.27 per cent, said the report.

Lack of access to enough healthy food (called food insecurity) is a problem among low-income earners, who are often renters and may also have little education. About 35 per cent of single-parent families in Edmonton experienced food insecurity in 2012, the report said.

Coun. Amarjeet Sohi said the city has been trying to build more walkable communities to encourage less reliance on cars and more physical activity, but mostly, it isn’t working.

“I’ve noticed there’s an issue of major traffic jams at schools even in new communities because everyone drives, even though they could walk,” said Sohi, who attended the report’s release along with food advocacy groups.

“It’s a cultural thing that happens. Maybe people are too busy, or have no time,” he said.

The community needs to address an activity gap in a city that relies heavily on organized sports to keep kids active. Middle-class families can afford fees for hockey, soccer and other sports that are out of reach for low-income families.

To combat the growing issue of food insecurity and its related health problems, the Edmonton Community Foundation announced it will award new grants of $100,000 for each of the next three years to community groups that are willing to address these issues.

Meanwhile, a new coalition of health advocates is lobbying on a variety of fronts, including to get junk food out of city recreation centres, to tax sugar-sweetened drinks, to convince school cafeterias to reduce servings of french fries and to restrict advertising of unhealthy sweetened food to children.

“These measures are aimed at prevention” of obesity, which can lead to other chronic diseases, said Kayla Atkey, of the Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention.

Meanwhile, the social planning council’s annual report on income, rents and other economic factors reinforced the message that food security is a major issue and is connected to poverty, said researcher John Kolkman.

While Edmonton’s economy had a strong recovery from the 2008 crash, and boasts high employment, there are still thousands of people stuck in low-paying jobs, he said.

About 128,900 people earn wages of $15 an hour or less, he said.

On the positive front, Edmonton also recorded a substantial reduction in homelessness (down by 29 per cent from 2008) thanks to a provincially funded 10-year plan to end homelessness, said Kolkman.

“That’s a positive indicator, but data on the rental market gives me pause,” he said.

The rental market today is already at a very tight 1.2-per-cent vacancy rate – a rate last seen in 2006 at the height of the boom, when rents jumped by 20 per cent, Kolkman said.

That tight rental market could make more people homeless, and will also eat into the incomes of many families, he said.

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