For this post, I interviewed Claire Wang. Dr. Wang is the Vice President of Research, Evaluation & Policy at the New York Academy of Medicine. She is a physician, and she holds a doctoral degree in Health Policy and Decision Sciences. Her research specialties include the field of health technology assessment, which examines the economic costs and benefits of new technologies in the health sector; chronic disease prevention; and obesity.
We talked about her paper, “COVID-19-Related School Closings and Risk of Weight Gain Among Children.” This paper is co-authored with Andrew Rundle, Yoosun Park, Julie Herbstman, and Eliza Kinsey. In this paper, Dr. Wang and her collaborators discuss a potential important unintended consequence of the school closures in the US during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s too soon to have data on this, but previous work has addressed the factors at play here.
First, because of the pandemic, many families are suffering financially and are grocery shopping less often, to avoid exposure to the virus. They are therefore buying more “shelf-stable” foods like pasta and ready-to-eat meals, which have lower nutritional value than foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, which are more expensive and don’t last as long. Second, results of previous studies have shown that childhood obesity increases during the summer, as opposed to during the school year. Over the summer, children become more sedentary, with increased screen time and no regular PE classes (not to mention screen time often means snack time, which often means junk food).
Both of these factors mean that childhood obesity is likely to increase during Covid-19. And, both of these factors are more likely to matter for children in lower income families. These families are more dependent on the affordability of the shelf-stable foods. They also more often rely on school lunches (and perhaps breakfasts) for a good portion of their daily nutrition. Another risk factor is living in a city, particularly in a small apartment, without access to spaces for physical activity, especially ones large enough for social distancing. In some cities, these spaces do exist, but access has been restricted due to Covid-19.
I asked Dr. Wang about interventions that might reduce the risk of childhood obesity due to Covid-19. She told me that, from the outset, even though they were closed, many school districts made it a priority to keep offering meals (it’s something they do over the summer regularly). They provided grab-and-go options or delivery by school bus. She has other ideas that could help as well. The government could provide a specific subsidy to families, like food stamps, but just for fruits and vegetables. In terms of physical activity, schools need to be thoughtful about how to teach PE online. As a teacher myself, trying to be innovative about teaching online, I’m guessing that there are some thoughtful PE teachers out there with innovative ideas about this!
Let’s talk! I would love to know what you think about this example of unintended consequences. Please submit comments and questions.