Every Saturday afternoon, Susana Flores and Ignacio Tapas sit for two hours on the benches of the Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science’s school gymnasium in the South Bronx, each watching their 13-year-old son play soccer.
“Nowadays, it is all about technology, and these kinds of programs are very interesting to keep them active,” said Flores, of the program called Saturday Night Lights.
The free sports program was founded almost 10 years ago to foster healthy relationships between police officers and children and is a partnership between district attorneys and the NYPD. It is also one of the few free sports programs in the South Bronx where children can be physically active.
The Bronx has a total of 23 gyms — a significant expansion after former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $5 million investment in partnership with the city’s five district attorneys last summer. Prior to the expansion, there were only 20 gyms across the five boroughs, now there’s 100.
In the South Bronx, where scattered syringe caps, homeless encampments and gang-affiliated graffiti are common, safe spaces for children to play and exercise are rare.
This, combined with high poverty rates (24% of Bronx residents living in poverty – double the national average) and a lack of easy access to healthy, affordable foods for many families, have contributed to the highest obesity rate of young people in the five boroughs, according to the city’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Childhood obesity has long been a problem in the city, however, and not just in the South Bronx. As of 2019, almost 40% of NYC public-school children in grades K-8 are overweight or obese, according to the city Department of Health. Latino students are 97% more overweight than their white peers, while Black students are 65% more overweight.
“The Bronx has been burdened by a variety of inequities for decades, and that includes health, housing, income, race, ethnicity, as well as environmental exposures,” said Mamta Fuloria, associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore.
No simple solution
Creating healthy habits as a family is pivotal to creating a sustainable long-term change for children, said Fuloria. Everyone must be involved in the process of creating change and participating in meal prep and exercise, she said.
There are no simple solutions to obesity, experts agree. Instead, the problem needs to be addressed by everyone – and every institution – involved in a child’s life.
Schools need to offer healthier lunches and more physical activities.
Making healthy food accessible and affordable is also key, said Dr. Suzette Oyeku, a pediatrician who is chief of The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore’s division of Academic General Pediatrics in New York City.
At Oyeku’s hospital in the Bronx, there’s a food pantry on campus called Project Bravo, to which doctors can send patients, she said. Prescriptions offered in a variety of similar programs around the US are typically for coupons or vouchers that can reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables.
But getting people and their children to want to eat healthy food is another matter.
Oyeku says those in health care need to take a “culturally humble” approach to conversations with families “to get a sense of their view in terms of how they view the weight.”
In some families, Oyeku said, chubby cheeks on children are considered a sign they are healthy. In particularly low-income households, parents may also forgo for themselves to feed their children meals — a scenario that can lead kids to eat too much high-calorie, starchy foods.
Oyeku has faced a similar challenge when patients showing pictures of plates with recommended portions.
“The challenge was the actual visual did not look like any food that they regularly eat,” she said. “You want to try to co-design the intervention or strategy for healthier eating and weight loss together.”
Furolia says more needs to be done such as involving schools to offer healthier lunches and more physical activity. Making sure children spend limited time watching screens, reducing the number of sugary drinks to eventually eliminate them, creating healthy habits as a family, and making sure children are getting enough exercise are all part of the solution, she said.
More affordable options needed for families
Amid the rundown buildings in the South Bronx, a new building on the corner of Bergen and Westchester avenues with a visible built-in fitness room stands out. It’s La Central, a new YMCA location scheduled to open this summer – one of the first family-friendly affordable gyms in the neighborhood.
One of YMCA’s goals is to help people be healthier through a holistic and community-focused approach, said Meishay Gattis, executive director of La Central.
“Although there are a lot of services in the Bronx, there has never been this deeper level of understanding of how we can make change,” he said. “We know there are a lot of different issues and problems in The Bronx, but the Y is doing it a little bit differently.”
It is placing a high importance on creating a sense of community and involving parents in the activities, he said.
La Central will add nutritional education to the curriculum and encourage healthy eating habits through fun cooking and gardening where children and their families can participate in classes.
YMCA will also offer low-cost and free memberships to people who can’t otherwise afford it. “It is about making access to all New Yorkers,” said Gattis.
The prospect of more affordable exercise opportunities for kids in the neighborhood is a welcome one to parents like Flores and Tapas.
Others, Such as New York City Parks and Recreation’s free summer swimming program, often have a waitlist.
“I wanted to enroll my children in swimming, but it was so difficult because of the waitlist,” said Flores.
Prior to finding out about Saturday Night Lights, Tapas used to travel to another neighborhood where his son was part of a free soccer tea, and is now glad to have found a place closer to home.
The program offers a variety of sports including basketball, volleyball and martial arts. Basketball and soccer have been the most popular sports so far, said Barry O’Driscoll, site administrator of the program.
“We want to get them active, and soccer is a great sport for that. Even though we only meet once a week, we try to connect them with other organizations to play soccer,” said O’Driscoll.
Flores and Tapas are excited to visit La Central and take their children to enjoy a place that only “people in Manhattan” have.
“For me, I like to choose where I go and this was something I particularly took on for myself because it is about where you can make the biggest impact,” said Gattis about La Central.
Yesenia Barrios, a Bronx resident and graduate of Baruch College in New York City, is an intern with Youthcast Media Group.