ALTHOUGH DAD GETS THE RECOGNITION THIS WEEKEND, Mom's the one who was right all along: Eat your vegetables as part of a well-balanced diet, and you'll grow up healthier and live a more productive life.
This message has become a meaty issue for Humboldt County recently as public health officials struggle with a growing incidence of iron-deficient anemia in children, characterized by a lack of iron in the blood. They say there are plenty of warning signs.
First, there's a growing number of children showing up at county soup kitchens and food pantries for low-income residents. About 40 percent of the 400 people a day who opt for the free lunch at St. Vincent de Paul in Eureka are children, society's most vulnerable.
And Food for People, the primary distribution center for surplus and free food for the poor, is increasing the number of children served by its summer sack lunch program starting this week. In its third year, the program will prepare 210 lunches per day for children under age 18, up from 120 last year. It is increasing the number of distribution sites as well.
Two recently released reports punctuate the growing concern.
From 1992 to 1997, the number of children under age 17 who tested anemic in Humboldt County rose from 12 to almost 16 percent. Anemia rates among 3- and 4-year-olds in particular increased from 16 to 23 percent in the five-year period. In California for 1996, 19 percent tested with the nutritional deficiency.
"And we have every indication (the numbers) are going up," said Ann Lindsay, Humboldt County public health officer.
These figures come from a state with more than a quarter of its children living in poverty, according to a national study issued by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The nonprofit established in 1948 by Jim Casey one of the founders of the United Parcel Service tracks the social, economic, educational and physical status of children throughout the nation. Its latest report shows an anything-but-rosy picture.
Of the 71 million Americans under age 18, 22 percent live in poverty in the United States, leading 17 industrialized nations.
Researchers have found a direct correlation between children's well-being and poverty considered a root cause of anemia.
When Contra Costa County health officials discovered a high rate of anemia among its children three years ago, they hit the road with a series of workshops for other counties. Humboldt health advocates began to evaluate the extent of its own problem. They found the county wasn't the worst, but it was "getting there," said county nutritionist Joyce Houston, who serves on the 2-year-old Northcoast Anemia Task Force.
A year prior to the formation of the task force, the county discovered that outlying communities may be heavily affected by the poverty-to-anemia correlation.
In Orick, a random blood test of 22 children at the northern Humboldt school by the Arcata-based Open Door Clinic put the matter into perspective. Ninety percent of the children tested as "highly" anemic.
"I was alarmed by it," said Peter Pennekamp, executive director of the nonprofit Humboldt Area Foundation. "We had reason to believe we have a serious problem here." (HAF provided a grant to rebuild the school's cafeteria wiped out by the 1964 flood.)
Wendy Rowan, a coordinator for Healthy Start a state program for schools in low-income or limited-English areas attacked the problem with healthy cooking workshops, community dinners, iron-rich meals in the cafeteria and vegetables in a school garden. The program was a remarkable success. A follow-up random test performed a year later found only one student out of 22 participants tested as anemic.
Rowan said the direct cause of childhood anemia is a blend of factors lack of food and poor food choices.
Under a federal order to cut fat and boost nutrition, school systems across the nation are engaged in a daily struggle to balance food that is good for students with what they will actually eat. New guidelines require school lunches to provide one-third of a student's daily iron intake. Breakfast meals are meant to provide a fourth of the requirement.
"If they're eating a school meal, they have the nutrition there," said Carol Miller, food service supervisor for Eureka City Schools. The district, which serves meals to about 40 percent of the students, recently passed a state program review.
"In my opinion, Humboldt County schools are doing a very good job," said state reviewer Carol Hall of Ferndale, who is in the midst of making her five-year cycle to 28 school districts in the region. "They're serving fresher and higher-fiber foods."
While school meals may be nutritious, health officials worry about all the non-school meals consumed, including the majority of the students who never eat school lunches at all.
Miller said she is convinced that some children who do eat school lunches "don't eat a decent meal" from the time they leave school Friday to the time they return on Monday.
"I've heard some say, `All we have is beer (in the house).' It breaks your heart. I wish I could find some way to have it work for everybody, but (good nutrition) really starts at home," she said. "A lot of things kids won't eat because it's something they don't eat at home."
From Harvard University to the University of Minnesota, there are a number of studies linking poor nutrition in children with delinquency in school and impaired cognitive development, one of the consequences of iron deficiency. Other consequences include poor motor development, decreased educational achievement, abnormal behavior, decreased resistance to infections and increased susceptibility to lead poisoning.
Anemia in children under age 3 may pose irreversible damage during this critical period of brain growth and development, a 1998 Center for Disease Control report indicates. Based in Atlanta, the CDC has declared war on this ailment with a national health objective to reduce iron deficiency to less than 3 percent among women of childbearing age and children between the ages of 1 to 4 by next year.
By the year 2000, this county will settle for lowering the current rate of anemia from 24 percent among 1- to 3-year-olds to less than 10 percent and decreasing the 23 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds with the condition to less than 5 percent.
How to go about that mission presents the real challenge, requiring a collaborative effort from educators, health care advocates and families.
To monitor whether children are getting their recommended iron allowance, Houston suggests testing children along with their routine medical exams.
Parents need to learn which foods are iron-rich, make them readily available and help children incorporate them into their diets, Houston said. (See list of foods.)
For those families without the financial means to provide healthful food, help is available.
"If it wasn't for the food bank, I wouldn't have eaten," Marilyn said, while waiting for her monthly food supplies from the bustling, 21-year-old organization. A year ago, Food for People moved to a new 9,000-square-foot facility on 14th Street in Eureka.
The 63-year-old Eureka woman, who asked to only be identified by her first name, has relied on the service for more than 20 years. She's disabled and unable to work, she said, but she can whip up a great soup with just about anything she receives from the food bank.
It's a little more complicated for Tawni Tellez of Eureka, who has to feed four children ages 2 to 8.
"I had a hard time coming down here. If it wasn't for the kids, I wouldn't," she said, taking her monthly supplies to the car. It's the first time Tellez has gone to the food bank for help in seven years, she said, but she has had a difficult time lately juggling school, motherhood and full-time work. Tellez just graduated with a nursing degree from College of the Redwoods in Eureka and plans to work in pediatrics.
The stigma of using a food bank is pervasive, health workers say.
"I'll have women who come in and say, `I can't tell my husband (where I'm getting the aid),'" said Cynthia Chason, executive director of Food for People "And I say: `What's the alternative? The bottom line is, you need to feed your family.'"
Chason, a former counselor, teacher and Peace Corps volunteer, said many of those seeking food from her organization are the working poor.
"That's been the trend," she said.
That's why her organization has become a well-oiled machine, serving about 900 households a month with staffers and volunteers on a $300,000 a year budget.
"A lot of people helped me (when I needed it), so I want to help in return," said volunteer Jennifer Daniels, filling boxes with vegetables, soup, stew, bread and mashed potato makings.
Daniels shows up every weekday to help and will continue to do so, she said, even though her new, paying job starts this week.
As Daniels and others were packing boxes for a waiting room full of people in the front lobby, others were unpacking one of the food bank's three vans in the back. Brown Bag Coordinator Susan Penn, whose 12 drivers cover an area from Orick to Redway, had just returned from a meal run for the senior program.
Ironically, seniors from the Humboldt Senior Resource Center prepare and pack the sack lunches for the children in the summer program. The $10,000 children's program is funded by the state and federal government with 20 percent of the operational expenses paid for by Food for People.
Food for People delivers the lunches to sites in Arcata, Eureka and Blue Lake or, for outlying areas, deliveries are picked up.
The children must eat the lunches on site, according to the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and California Department of Education.
Local stores, businesses and individual donations keep the food bank stocked each month, said Doug Moyer, volunteer coordinator. Last month the U.S. Postal Service collected and donated 20,000 pounds of food for distribution.
In Arcata, workers for the Arcata Food Endeavor were busy moving into their new facility next to the bus depot last week. The city allowed the 15-year-old program to move in three weeks ahead of schedule because of an arson fire last month in its old facility.
Director Carla Ritter said she has noticed a rise in the number of children using their services. In the summer Ritter estimates they'll provide 45 boxes a day to needy families. The group will start serving hot meals in August.
For now, those seeking a hot meal can go to the Eureka Rescue Mission on Second Street for breakfast and dinner, which serves 150 to 350 meals a day, kitchen supervisor Marvin Houy said.
At lunch time on any given day only a few blocks away, one can hear the clanging of pots and pans by the kitchen staff at St. Vincent de Paul. Kitchen supervisor Chuck Kircher estimates that the program dishes out about 400 meals a day on a mere $120,000 annual budget. The majority who rely on the service are men, but a growing number almost half are minors, he added.
"When school's over, we expect 60 to 70 more people (a day)," Kircher said, and those numbers include a growing number of teenagers.
Sometimes the poor just need a push to get them back on track, said Jim Sousa, director of a health department program for women, infants and children called WIC.
"Often times, we'll get families, and after a while they'll move on to other things," Sousa said. WIC, which serves about 2,000 people a month, provides funds for food with high nutrition, counseling and other services for low-income county residents. Many are referred by physicians.
Among the other community-based efforts to feed the poor, a parish nurse coordinator with St. Joseph Health System is working on a nutrition program run out of the county's churches that includes cooking classes.
"It's based on the theory that (some) parents don't know how to prepare healthy foods," Nancy Sheen said.
Some lessons are as basic as cooking in cast-iron skillets which, by the way, is another inexpensive source of iron.
Iron Rich Foods
PHOTOS by Mark Lufkin:
1. Top: Tellez family photo
2. "When school's over, we expect 60 to 70 more peeople (a day)," reports Chuck Kircher, St. Vincent De Paul kitchen supervisor.
3. "A lot of people helped me (when I needed it), so I want to help in return.," says Jennifer Daniels, Food Bank volunteer.
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