05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Do We Help Kids Eat Healthy Foods?

"I applaud the First Lady for taking the childhood obesity epidemic to the national level. The $6.7 billion we spend annually on obesity related issues could be used to close our nation's budget deficit," points out New York State's First Lady Michelle Patterson, also a passionate and practical proponent of healthy nutrition for children. She spoke last week at the Urban Zen Center in downtown Manhattan, which hosted FitTown USA, a two day seminar co-sponsored by Donna Karan's Urban Zen Foundation and HealthCorps, launched by Mehmet Oz, MD and his wife, Lisa Oz, to empower young people to become agents for healthy change.

"It's not about lecturing kids about healthy nutrition or setting up nutritional gatekeepers," Barnaby Spring, a Brooklyn school principle agrees. "We need to give kids the experience of what healthy food is-- Our kids need to plant it, grow it, and prepare it. It needs to be made affordable."

HealthCorps sends young health activists into school systems to inspire students and find practical and creative ways to build healthy nutrition and exercise into their lives. "The kids wanted to learn Kung Fu but there was no kung fu studio--so we emptied class room and turned it into one. They needed aerobic exercise but due to program cuts, there was no exercise equipment, so we organized to do stair climbing as exercise," reported Kristy Borak, a HealthCorps coordinator at a Manhattan high school.

When Patterson launched the "Healthy Steps to Albany" program, which will serve an estimated 362,000 middle school New York State children this year, she learned that before the Healthy Steps farm visits, many children "didn't know that a potato chip comes from a potato," or that "milk comes from a cow, not the grocery store."

Teaching kids about healthy nutrition directly challenges school food offerings which are typically poor quality, fattening, and fast, a turnkey bureaucratic solution that translates into weight gain and poor health, especially for those from lower income families, who often eat their only meal of the day at school.

'I have an issue with the flavored milks offered in schools," says chef Alexandra Jamieson. "They contain nearly as much sugar as a Coke. That's ridiculous. Kids should not be offered that kind of "choice." "

Poor quality food actually undermines the ability to learn, says Physician Sarita Dhuper, MD, who directs a pediatric obesity program at a Brooklyn Hospital. "High quality food is both healthy and improves concentration and learning."

"Everyone thinks the school lunch served at our is pretty disgusting," says area high school principal Jean McTavish. "Even the woman who runs the school food program. She says she won't eat the food. But it's been like beating our heads against the wall to make any healthy changes." McTavish managed to raise the money to assemble a small kitchen where children can learn to cook.

Despite the creativity and dedication of principals like McTavish and Spring, they alone can't resolve the systemic causes of unhealthy food and poor school nutrition. However, grass roots organizing and advocacy can build to larger scale social change.

That's why, "with the HealthCorps children as the ambassadors, we're spreading the word at home," says Lisa Oz.

Learning about health with their peers also helps to inoculate children from the powerful market forces driving the consumption of unhealthy foods both via deals within the school system and advertising outside of it. "TV has a large influence," points out pioneering nutritional educator, Annemarie Colbin, PhD, " Many children can't distinguish between the programs and the commercials."

When raising her own family, Colbin, now a grandmother, handled her children's pleas for fast foods, sodas, and sweets by telling them, "Any food that is advertised on TV--don't ask, I'm not buying it."

"Let's not forget that the first legal obligations of the companies producing these foods is to make money-- not to support our health," says Jamieson.

"We need to make health a priority," says Spring. But "these problems must be addressed in a multi-faceted way. Until we address the economic and social problems, we are spinning our wheels," says McTavish.

"It's vital to work at both the personal level to make better food choices," says Michael Conard, of the Urban Design Lab at Earth Institute. "But also at the societal level to change farming practices that subsidize cheap unhealthy food."

Societal changes require broad based grass roots consumer support; or even well-intentioned legislative efforts risk defeat, Patterson reminds the group.

"When we proposed a soda tax on sweetened beverages, it was knocked down in the state legislature," Patterson recalls. "We need people lobbying Albany and saying enough's enough--these are our kids and their future."

That's why "we can't just sit back and hope that government can do it, it has to be a partnership of public and private working together," says Lisa Oz. HealthCorps programs support such alliances by coalescing an active citizenship as a base.

"Our goal is to empower people and to bring together those who are as concerned about this as we are," says HealthCorps' Borak.

"The systemic changes necessary for the sake of our children and their health won't happen, unless all of us do our part," Donna Karan reminded the FitTown participants. "We each have a piece of the puzzle. We all must do what we can, and then turn around and talk to our neighbors and our friends and get them to do their part too."

For Patterson, the bottom line is that studies show that the next generation of children have a lower life expectancy than their parents--once again due to childhood obesity. "In human history, this has never happened before!" Patterson says. "We need to turn this around."

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