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Linda Novick O'Keefe

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Obesity Epidemic: Spurring a Revolution

Posted: 01/17/2012 11:36 am

Maybe you've been looking anxiously at maps this week? There's new violence in the Sudan, mayhem in Syria, and worry that Iran might block the Straights of Hormuz. All of these are critical locations... but what I keep returning to is Feeding America's "Map the Meal Gap" interactive tool.

Clicking on the map, you can track food insecurity state by state. Households that are deemed "food insecure" are those that do not always have access to adequate nutrition for all members. Even if you know that food shortages affect far too many Americans, there's something terribly chilling about being able to click on your home state and see the numbers. When I search Illinois, I find that nearly 2 million people fall into the food insecure category.

As it happens, Vicki B. Escarra, President and CEO of Feeding America, was featured on a January 12 panel alongside Barbara Ehrenreich, another cultural critic who's informed my thinking about the real costs of ill health brought on by poor diet. Both women appeared with other guests including Professor Cornel West and financial advisor Suze Orman on "Remaking America" with Tavis Smiley.

Ehrenreich will be familiar to many of you for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, her classic experiment in living on a minimum wage. First published in 2002 and re-released in 2011, the book chronicles Ehrenreich's experiences when she went "undercover" and worked at several low-paying jobs. After months as a waitress, hotel maid, and housekeeper, she had a new understanding of the tenacity and desperate struggles faced daily by America's working poor. She also had an appreciation of how difficult it is to eat healthy food on a minimum wage. Her middle-class readers learned this unsettling fact, too. As Ehrenreich notes on her blog, "A Florida woman wrote to tell me that, before reading [Nickel and Dimed], she'd always been annoyed at the poor for what she saw as their self-inflicted obesity. Now she understood that a healthy diet wasn't always an option."

As many of Ehrenreich's working poor could attest, poverty and ill health are often part of a vicious cycle. The challenges of eating healthfully don't simply disappear when you gain access to groceries. You need a clean place to cook, some basic tools, and reliable sources of water and heat. Moreover, you need to know what to do with the legumes, grains, vegetables, and budget cuts of meat that form the staples of wholesome, economical meals. A recent Columbia University study in nutrition education points out the not-surprising fact that it's not enough to give people data about the risks of obesity. To create real changes in the way Americans eat, we need to link data with actual behavioral practice and environmental support.

Fortunately, the obesity epidemic finally seems to be spurring a revolution on many private as well as public fronts. I've written elsewhere in this blog about some of the organizations involved in the fight. Recently, several other initiatives designed to get kids involved in healthy eating came to my attention.

Wellspring Academy, a boarding school for obese students, was featured in December on NPR's All Things Considered. Students who attend the school must commit to a full immersion active lifestyle, including giving up electronics that contribute to sedentary behavior. Each day begins with a five mile hike before classes, and continues with carefully balanced meals and physical activity. Counselors, personal trainers, and teachers are all on hand to support the weight-loss goals of the school's fifty students.

The school is also the focus of a popular reality TV show on the Style network, Too Fat for Fifteen: Fighting Back, which tracks the emotional journeys of several students over the course of the year. (I have to admit that, while I'm not usually susceptible to reality tv's pull, seventeen-year old Tanisha has earned a place on my hero register for her gumption and style. This shy girl began at 510 lbs, and by the time she reaches a relatively-svelte 350, she's transformed into a gregarious young person who wants to become a Supreme Court judge.)

Students at Wellspring take several classes each week in Culinary and Nutrition Training so that they can do their own meal planning once they're on their own. But as the NPR feature makes clear, such an education is not cheap. A year at Wellspring Academy costs $62,000; some families are exhausting their retirement savings or college funds to send their kids here. This is not an option that many can afford.

Instead, what if we were more creative about empowering kids with both nutritional knowledge and culinary skills in public schools? The Common Threads after-school programs have been a great success across the country. Why can't we do more to incorporate some of these basic kitchen skills during the regular school day? In fact, why not bring back Home Economics classes? This was the argument made by Helen Zoe Veit in a compelling New York Times op ed last September.

Home Ec was around in my day, and the cooking angle was quite useful. I remember learning how to make chicken stir fry, and the teacher spent time discussing safe poultry handling. These are guidelines I still use. (Admittedly, the other part of the class, in which we sewed and stuffed pillows, was pretty dated.) But as Veit argues, old fashioned elements could be completely revamped to get a generation that has no idea how to boil water feeling confident in the kitchen. Imagine if every seventh- and eighth-grader across America knew how to make several healthy meals that could feed a family of four for under $10. Combine that knowledge with greater access to nutritious foods as more companies step in to eradicate food deserts in urban areas, and you have the makings of a true food revolution.

And what about creating more innovative kids' entertainment to teach food prep skills? A cooking video game, anyone? Or more kid-focused television offerings? I'm sure my little darlings are not the only ones in the 6-12 age bracket obsessed with the Food Network.

Some organizations have tapped into this curiosity in brilliant ways. In New York City, for instance, the World Cares Center has for several years hosted an "Iron Skillet Junior" cook-off. In this contest, teams of kids from different Parks Department after-school programs show off their talents. Each team is responsible for creating a recipe beforehand and for cooking their meal with a firefighter chef on the day of the event. A celebrity panel then judges the results, based on taste, creativity, and originality.

For our kids to combat the obesity plague, no single strategy is adequate. We need easy access to affordable good food, plus physical activity, plus kids who are not intimidated by kitchen utensils and raw vegetables. Then we need to acknowledge that making time to eat together is important. As the inimitable M.F.K Fisher once wrote: "It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others." Imagine the food revolution we could create together from these ingredients.

 

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