In a classroom located in a part of town where a stem of broccoli sells for $2.49 and a pizza costs only three bucks more, parents are trying their best.
They want to feed their kids healthier, home-cooked meals but have difficulty finding the time, money or resources to do so.
At Kaiser Permanente's Rancho Cordova, Calif., medical offices, Dr. Catherine Vigran, a pediatrician, and Carrie Beale, a nurse practitioner, are hoping to change that.
"If you just fed your kids, and an hour later your son comes up to you and says, 'I'm hungry,' you can say, 'I want you to have a glass of water,' " Beale tells the 20 or so parents, mostly mothers, sitting around a large table. As Beale continued giving tips for getting kids to eat less junk food, Vigran provided a Spanish translation.
"Things really transitioned over the last 15 years," Beale said. "We've seen more kids that come in who are obese. Now we're really focusing, right from the beginning, to avoid processed foods and push for fruits and vegetables."
But Vigran and Beale know they can't improve the eating habits of their community alone.
That's where the summer nutrition and cooking program comes in. Sponsored by Kaiser Permanente's community benefits division, Folsom Cordova Unified School District and AmeriCorps VISTA, the program aims to educate children and their parents about healthy eating habits.
"I think it's a big problem that really encompasses almost every aspect of society," Vigran said, adding that policies about food, outdoor space and school lunches likely do a lot more than counseling people individually.
Ramona Mosley, program director of the West Sacramento-based nonprofit Health Education Council, agreed.
"It's a combination of many things, not just individual choices," she said. "It involves the environment. If there are no supermarkets, farmers markets or retail markets around the community, how are people able to purchase those choices? You don't even have the choice to be healthy."
According to the National Health and Examination Survey, about one-third of U.S. adults (33.8 percent) are obese.
Approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, no state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent. Thirty-six states had a prevalence of 25 percent or more; 12 of these states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) had a prevalence of 30 percent or more.
Organized by the Health Education Council, the campaigns in low-income areas of California advocate garden kits, nutrition and physical activity and decreasing individual soda consumption.
"What we try to do is provide education so people are better informed," said Dawn Dunlap, a council staff member. "We want them to deal with issues coming up against them. We empower them to make better choices."
She added, "The individual has to make that decision to go above and beyond to be healthier. Maybe it costs more to cook, but when it comes to feeding your family a healthy meal, it is cheaper than feeding them at a fast-food establishment."
Dunlap cited Michael Pollan, a journalist specializing in the food industry, who wrote in "The Omnivore's Dilemma": "People say they don't have time to cook, yet in the last few years we have found an extra two hours a day for the Internet."
Ana Melara, 32, is onboard with healthier eating.
"I've seen it a lot. People go ... to the junk-food restaurants and just take it home," said the stay-at-home mother of four who attended a nutrition lecture at Cordova Villa Elementary School in Rancho Cordova. "But you can work things out. You only have to be willing."
According to Gail Feenstra, food systems coordinator of the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, the odds are stacked high against parents.
"The amount of money being spent to advertise unhealthy foods to children is huge," she said, adding that government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Education spend millions of dollars advocating for healthy food policies, while the food industry spends billions on marketing. "This is not a level playing field here."
Vigran feels the only thing she can offer is her expertise.
"There's an old metaphorical story in public health about people who live by the river and see people drowning," she said. The people try to help by calling rescue squads and fire brigades. "Finally they go, 'Maybe we should go upstream and see who are pushing these people in?' But we're the people downstream. We're just fishing people out of the river."
STEPS TO HEALTHIER EATING
Nurse practitioner Carrie Beale's tips for getting kids to eat healthier:
• Don't let them eat in front of the TV. Sitting in a chair doing nothing burns eight to 10 calories. Sitting in front of the TV slows the metabolism and doesn't burn nearly as much as at the dinner table.
• Set an example. Children notice a disconnect if you eat junk food but they can't. Kids will eat what their parents eat, so eat your vegetables.
• Drink water and low-fat milk, not soda or juice. Liquid sugar doesn't fill you up, and the extra calories will make you gain weight.
• Make sure they're actually hungry. Oftentimes, people mistake hunger for boredom, thirst or the need to chew. If your kid wants a snack, offer a fruit or a vegetable. If they're truly hungry, they'll take it. If they get picky, think twice.
• Budget your time and get the family to help. Prepare meals on the weekend and freeze them for the rest of the week. Frozen fruits are just as nutritious. Also, buying ingredients during peak season saves money.
• Just don't have it in the house. Having a junk-food free home gives kids no choice but to eat healthy.