STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Shifting the focus from water to food in Flint

It's near closing time at the Flint Farmers' Market, and the aisles of fruits and vegetables are nearly empty.

But in a banquet room on the other side of the building, families are pouring in for Light Up the Night, a free event put on by the Early Childhood Development Center at the University of Michigan-Flint. 

Little kids are dancing with light up toys, decorating cookies with neon frosting, and making glow-in-the-dark crafts.

Three-year-old Elliott Jones shows me the silly putty he made using his favorite color, yellow.

Like many others here tonight, Elliott and his mother Janise Jones are on Flint city water.

Jones said they were already drinking bottled water when the city started pumping its drinking water from the Flint River two years ago.

"When I would turn on my faucet, it would be brown water, basically. So I'm like, 'No, I'm not going to drink this at all,’" Jones said.

Jones still used her water for cooking and bathing, so Elliott may have been exposed to lead.

But, she said she’s not going to have his lead levels tested.

“I don’t want to know. Because, obviously, there’s nothing we can do in order to cure him if he tested with lead, and I would rather not stress about it," she said.

She's not wrong.

The effects of lead exposure are irreversible, but doctors say good nutrition can help lessen the blow.

Jones says she hadn't heard that.

"I feel like we eat pretty well anyway," she said.

Jones' sister, Ashara Manns, is also at the event tonight with her four-year-old daughter Jada.

She's also on city water, but she chose to have Jada's lead level tested.

"They told me it was a little elevated, and I should have her eat green leafy vegetables," Manns said.

Vegetables are just one type of food experts recommend to fight back against the effects of lead.

"As our children are still exposed to lead, or have had recent exposure, diets high in iron, calcium and vitamin C can limit the absorption of lead in your body and can promote its excretion," said Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. "We think our kids in Flint were hit harder by [the lead], because they had pre-existing poor nutrition."

Hanna-Attisha says now that most people are getting safe water, public health experts need to shift their focus to educating families about nutrition.

"The outpouring of support has been incredible, but we don't need water anymore. We've had a lot of donations of water,” she said.

Hanna-Attisha’s employer is among those trying to get the word out about fighting the effects of lead with high nutrient foods like fruit, milk and greens.

Hurley Medical Center even has a special cookbook on the subject. It’s filled with kid-friendly recipes like chocolate strawberry French toast and cheesy hamburger skillet.

Back at the event at the Flint Farmers' Market, I met Della Becker-Cornell. She directs U of M Flint's early childhood development center.

She said when it comes to educating families about nutrition, it’s not the families attending the event she’s most worried about.

"It's families that are not in programs. How do we reach them? That's what we need to get out there, so they can know how to offset this. Even if they don't want to know. [Children] are our future."

Becker-Cornell said education will be the key to helping Flint families make it through this crisis.