12/07/2011 02:30 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2012

Too Fat to Fight

Childhood obesity is a national security issue.

What? Did I understand that correctly? Of course excess weight is a health risk, and it becomes a wider social issue when we consider the devastating effect poor diet has on children's learning abilities. But it took the commanding words of David Lawrence, Jr., to open my eyes to the actual security risks America has incurred after decades of neglecting kids' nutritional well-being.

Lawrence was one of the keynote speakers at this week's inaugural Building a Healthier Future Summit in Washington. The summit was organized the Partnership for a Healthier America, which works with the private sector and its honorary chairwoman Michelle Obama to tackle the country's obesity crisis.

Can I say up front that Lawrence is, without exaggeration, one of the most impressive people I've ever heard speak? After a vibrant 35-year career as a journalist and editor at papers including the Miami Herald and the Detroit Free Press, he "retired" to work in early childhood development. He's now president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, and he leads The Children's Movement of Florida, working to make all children the state's priority. When this authoritative yet kind-seeming man began to speak, the audience went silent. We were rapt.

Lawrence highlighted research that indicates how shockingly poor our current investment in our country's future - our children - really is. He pointed to data indicating that a dollar spent wisely in a child's first years could have a return of at least seven dollars that won't need to be spent later on remedial education or correction. Lawrence is no stranger to running a $300 million operation with over 2,000 employees. He knows about returns on investment. He's practical and utterly professional. Yet he was brought nearly to tears of frustration as he reported these appalling facts.

I had a chance to speak with Lawrence afterwards, and he told me he's truly frightened that three-quarters of Americans aged 17-24 can't enter the military because they are ineligible. Let me repeat that figure: three-quarters of our young people of service age are not fit, either because they are obese or are dealing with issues such as substance abuse, a criminal record, or academic problems. The full report, released in 2010 by a panel of retired senior military personal, revealed that obesity is the leading medical reason why potential recruits are turned away. This constellation of ills is deeply rooted in our eating habits. We've replaced nutrition with empty calories, replaced family dinners with television.

Lawrence's gravity made clear that we are at a national nadir. As he noted, the U.S. was once first in the world in both high school and college graduation rates. Today we are, respectively, at position 20 and 16. "That," he summarized with chilling understatement," is no recipe for global competitiveness."

Yet the summit gave me a sense of real excitement and relief. Why? Because finally everyone seems to see what a crucial issue childhood well-being is. All children need nourishing food, regular exercise, supportive family structures, and healthy educational systems. Yes, the situation right now is dire. The current economic crisis only makes it harder. But the summit demonstrated that public, private, and nonprofit organizations can form strategic collaborations to reverse these trends.

Among the other speakers was Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and CEO of PolicyLink. The organization, started in 1999, uses public policy to improve access and opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color. Blackwell is graceful and sophisticated, the kind of elegant role model I dream of becoming at her age. She talked about how good eating habits learned from nightly family dinners instilled in her a healthful appetite. Recalling her first year away from home, Blackwell recounted how she once splurged and bought all kinds of sodas and junk food for her apartment. But she never ate it - it just wasn't in her dietary DNA.

Blackwell's talk absolutely nailed other dimensions of the access issue: while it's crucial to have affordable good food available to all, we also have to know how to prepare it. And, we need to build a culture where its possible for families to sit down together at mealtime in order to build healthy eating models. This is so crucial it can't be overstated. This is why Common Threads has made after-school classes in family dinner planning its mission. I've seen kids gain so much from the experience: nutritional awareness of course, but also greater self confidence, more ease in interacting with mentors, and a real delight in making something with their own hands.

Cory Booker, the dynamo mayor of Newark, New Jersey, also spoke about the challenges of confronting childhood obesity now, when there is not a moment to lose. Effusive and galvanizing, Booker is a "mountain, get out of my way" kind of presenter. Certainly the problems addressed by the summit are daunting. Certainly it will take our utmost to shift decades of bad practice. But as Booker insisted repeatedly, it's not impossible.

Speaking with Booker later, I was mesmerized by his vision and his "can-do" energy. Anyone who has followed the developments in Newark over the past few years can't help being impressed. The city has expanded urban gardening opportunities, developed a small business loans program to help bodegas bring more fresh green foods to neighborhoods, and enacted the largest parks expansion project in a century. Key to all this, Booker pointed out, are partnerships that generate "convening power," bringing together philanthropies, corporations, citizens' groups, and clubs - "everyone from the Girl Scouts to La Raza," as he put it - to tackle issues in the common interest.

That same convening energy was obvious at the summit. "We were sobered by the challenges," Booker said, but "when you get foundations sitting down and saying 'Wow, this is the first time we've sat down as a foundation community,' it really starts to plant seeds" of possibility.

Of course, I had to ask Booker about his own experiences with meals as a child. What sort of family dinners did he remember? "A dinner table is where kids learn some of their basic values," he mused. "Having dinner with family not only taught me table manners and ensured that I got healthy food, but..." He paused as if seeking a strong enough word: "it was really foundational. The best of that family unit was manifested at that table."

Booker's words from the heart went straight to mine.

The summit ended with an event that had all of us laughing outloud: a "Great American Family Dinner Challenge." The dinner featured healthy fast menus for four people, each meal costing no more than $10. The meals were prepared by four beyond brilliant chefs (all who are cool to the core people and friends) who broke into two teams in two kitchens to cook for two families. All four chefs are James Beard Award winners. Top Chef's Tom Colicchio, the chef/owner of Craft Restaurant, Colicchio & Sons, and 'wichcraft, received the 2010 Outstanding Chef Award. Alongside him was the very thoughtful Maria Hines, executive chef and owner of the Golden Beetle and Tilth restaurants in Seattle. Facing off against them were comedian Ming Tsai, chef/owner of Blue Ginger, and big hearted Holly Smith, the chef/owner of both Cafè Juanita and Poco Carretto Gelato in Kirkland, Washington.

The meal preparation was a hoot to watch. Tom Colicchio invited child kitchen whiz Haile Thomas to act as his sous chef. Thomas is the host of the delightful Kids Can Cook web show. The ten-year-old Thomas clearly had the situation well in hand. When asked by White House Chef Sam Kass why she was searing meat for one dish, the mini-master replied with a tone of gentle disdain, "It does bring out the flavor, you know." At another point, my hilarious friend Ming Tsai was chagrined when one of the dinner guests - a five year old boy - was observed spitting part of his dinner into his napkin. (I didn't want to giggle, but isn't it reassuring that even the master chef sometimes has trouble pleasing the tender palate?)

Honestly, by summit's close, I was filled with a deep excitement. To see this extensive commitment, this level of leadership from the likes of Lawrence and Blackwell and Booker, was astonishingly rewarding. Over the eight years that Common Threads has been working to educate kids about nutrition, it's sometimes been hard to get wider attention on these issues. Chronic, pervasive cultural ills aren't always headline grabbing. And for every success - every new school that offers free after-school cooking classes, every child who learns to like the taste of a healthier meal - there remain so many who are under-served.

But the needle is moving in the right direction. As the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation's President Lisa Gable observed, the summit was a superb opportunity for fresh allegiances. "Common Threads' hands-on cooking program in the inner city is having a real impact in local communities and is perfectly in line with HWCF's Together Counts campaign - our online effort to encourage families to eat meals and exercise together," she pointed out. Other key players include organizations like ChildObesity180, which has just announced a three-point strategy devoted to Kids Out of School (nutrition and after-school activity), Healthy School Breakfasts, and School-Time Physical Activity. Private sector partners like Hyatt Hotels and Resorts are also likely to have a lasing effect. The Hyatt announced at the summit that its menus would be enhanced to follow the most recent food recommendations, including the MyPlate federal guidelines on children's nutritional needs. Studies suggest that Americans now consume almost a third of their daily calories away from home. Those of us who travel with our families can hope that Hyatt's move encourages other major chains to make similar healthy advances.

Challenging times, yes. Crisis, yes. But I came away from the summit energized, more eager than ever to be part of this conversation.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?