Obesity is an issue in York's schools. These local women are aiming to change that

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Growing up in York City, the closest thing to nature Enya Harris had was the concrete jungle of the paved city streets.

It wasn't until she moved to North Carolina at age 7 that Harris truly felt sunshine on her skin and the tickle of grass on her bare feet. She played in creeks and connected with the world around her — a transformative part of her experience. If she had stayed in York, she would have ended up being a completely different person.

Harris, who recently started her own health and spiritual journey, is back in York County to bring wellness and nature to York City's children.

"I want to bring holistic health care knowledge and connect children in the city back with nature," Harris said. "I realize how much connecting with nature heals children."

Enya Harris at Kiwanis Lake in York on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

Struggling communities: The United States has struggled with high obesity rates for years. In Pennsylvania alone, 33% of adults and 18% of children in grades K-12 are affected by obesity, according to the state Department of Health. Nationally, meanwhile, the prevalence of obesity is approximately 42% in adults and 19% in children.

In York County, almost 32% of children from K-6 and 37% of children from seventh to 12th grade were overweight or obese, according to state statistics provided by Dr. Christopher Russo, director of pediatrics, women and children services, and medical director for quality and innovation for WellSpan Health.

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These numbers matter particularly for underrepresented communities, which are disproportionately affected. African American women, for example, have the highest rates of obesity or being overweight compared to other groups in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Structural racism, the lack of standardized housing and substandard communities in which many historically marginalized communities have been forced to live in due to systemic racism and practices have really led to a lot of those food deserts and food swamps," Russo said. "It's hard for a parent or a caregiver who really wants to do the right thing to be able to to get fresh food and healthy options for their children."

York Fresh Food Farm's stand in York on July 7, 2022.

For children: It's a multi-faceted, complex issue — but just because it's a complex problem doesn't mean that health providers can't approach the issue in a multidisciplinary way, Russo said.

WellSpan Health, for instance, is launching a new health initiative focused on the developmental needs of young children.

The "Spotlight on Children’s Health" program aims to break this cycle of disadvantage by nurturing the whole child and family at an early age, with an overall goal of eliminating health and achievement inequities, according to WellSpan.

Russo, who personally works with many York families to address the complexities of obesity, often approaches this work through motivational interviewing with an entire family. This includes accepting that there is a problem, identifying the root cause and coming up with healthy solutions moving forward.

"There are things that we can do as a health care system, and we do, to put the spotlight on children and connect them to wonderful community partners," Russo added.

Whether it be connecting families to food bank resources or a local YMCA for exercise, as a health care provider Russo said it's imperative for doctors to put the spotlight on children and connect them to community partners who are able to treat this as a complex problem.

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Changing the narrative: Enter: Harris and other community members.

"African Americans have the highest rate of obesity, high blood pressure, cancer or just sickness all around," Harris said. "I'm African American myself, so it hurts to know that America isn't doing the best they can when it comes to their health care. It put a weight on my heart."

Enya Harris at Kiwanis Lake in York on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

Harris is working to change this narrative. She recently partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of York & Adams Counties to teach a small group of kids about the importance of eating healthy and how to connect with nature. She's also worked to promote the efforts of York Fresh Food Farms, which brings fresh fruits and vegetables to various York City neighborhoods.

She also aims to visit different elementary schools each week. And to address the need of fresh fruits and vegetables that low-income families don't have access to, Harris plans on opening community gardens across York City that anybody can take from.

"I'm going to go to the schools and I'm going to teach children how to garden," Harris said. "I'm gonna teach children how to plant foods and educate children on different foods and different plants."

York Fresh Food Farm's stand in York on July 7, 2022.

At Hannah Penn: Harris isn't the only one in York County working to help kids achieve their goals and learn about health education.

Sharla Scotten, the health and wellness coach for Family First Health, is present in Hannah Penn K-8 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to meet with students and provide a support net for forming healthy habits and goals.

Family First Health selected Hannah Penn as its first school-based health center due to it being the highest need in the community.

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Out of the school's 677 students, 17.6% are considered overweight and 14% are obese, according to statistics provided by Family First Health.

When working with students to address these concerns, it's important for Scotten to approach these changes from a healthy, safe mindset.

Disordered eating, for instance, can spiral out of control for a child when faced with the reality of needing to lose weight.

"One of the biggest things is building a relationship with the student. I try to be involved so they feel comfortable with asking me questions," Scotten said. "And something that I specifically do as a health coach myself, when dealing with kids, is not talk about weight loss. I try to focus on what's nutritious and what is going to be keeping your body healthy."