05/09/2012 08:24 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

How to Address the Obesity Epidemic: Start Young

The causes of the obesity epidemic are in plain sight. Every time we fire up our iPads or turn on our TVs, we see the disappearance of family mealtime, the increased accessibility of fast food and the proliferation of urban food deserts. At the same time, new schools across the country are being built without working kitchens and minimal space for physical play. All have devastating consequences for America's youth. But for many, tangible solutions are less apparent.

Our nation spends $190 billion reactively addressing obesity-related diseases each year. And yet, there are a number of organizations like Common Threads and others who are conducting research and bringing innovative, direct service programs that can change behavior.

Obesity talk is everywhere this week. Over the next few days, the Institute of Medicine will release a report on strategies to combat the problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will host a major conference highlighting efforts to control the epidemic and HBO will air a four-part documentary on the crisis. Whether or not these events will bring us closer to a solution, this issue is top of mind for those of us in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C.

In his recent New York Times blog, David Bornstein draws on the links between higher maternal education and reduced obesity rates. In fact, our organization has seen firsthand how parental buy-in can lead to real behavior changes. Within a year of introducing our parent outreach program, which teaches parents how to build a pantry and make a few of the recipes we teach their children, we saw a 12 percent increase in families making the recipes learned at Common Threads. That said, we cannot -- and should not -- dismiss the power of children to shift their family's eating behaviors and patterns.

Case in point: Elijah, 9 years old.

After a seemingly endless day, a single mother picked her son up from the Challengers Boys and Girls Club in South Central Los Angeles. As they were leaving, she realized she had forgotten her wallet and needed to pick up something for dinner on the way home. Mother and son were both exhausted and hungry, so they searched together for as much change as they could find in the car, their pockets and his backpack. After coming up with nearly $10 in change, the mother suggested hitting the drive-thru of the closest fast food restaurant for a hassle-free solution.

Elijah had a different plan. "Mom, I can make something for us. Let's go to the grocery store," he declared. Curious about what her son was planning, Elijah's mother headed to the closest corner store where they picked up spinach, tomato sauce, onions and rice to combine with some ingredients they had at home. Elijah skillfully used the fresh ingredients to create Egusi Soup, a Senegalese dish he had just learned at Common Threads. Elijah then proceeded to cook the rice so his mother could take leftovers to work the next day.

The mother was beaming as she retold the story to our staff, adding that it was the best meal she had ever eaten. Soon, all eyes shifted toward Elijah, who was standing proudly with his head held high and smiling from ear to ear.

Access to fresh groceries changed everything for Elijah and his mom that night. For many families in Los Angeles and other metro areas across the country, things are not as easy -- but they are getting better.

There is an interesting change happening in Los Angeles when it comes to the influx of food deserts. A program operated by the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities is giving small neighborhood convenience stores makeovers to enable store owners to provide patrons with more healthful food options.

Yash La Casa Market is the first of four stores chosen for the free makeovers. The qualifications were based on location and unused retail space. Today, Yash is a health-centered business that is a light to its community. Once drab, with no produce section, Yash now boasts bright neon green exterior paint and natural light on the inside. The most important change to Yash is a 600-square-foot garden in the back that enables the market to sell home-grown produce, including pesticide-free spinach, tomatoes and onions -- all the ingredients needed to make Elijah's Egusi Soup.

This sort of change is crucial to East L.A.'s 97 percent Latino population, which has been found to be vulnerable to the risk of heart disease. A study conducted by the county Department of Public Health found that in East L.A., where Yash La Casa Market is located, more than 25 percent of participants had been diagnosed with high cholesterol and 30 percent with hypertension. Both diseases are often tied to obesity and poor nutritional intake.

The hope is that this newly-available produce will begin the slow process of recovery for many Americans living in food deserts. With enough assistance from the community, areas like East L.A. may see a decline in cases of hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity through increased access to fresh food.

Yash will soon accept vouchers from federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This change will make it easier for customers to afford better choices for healthy lifestyles in communities that have not been given the opportunity in the past.

This process, however, will not necessarily influence the way people shop for food or what they believe is good for them to eat, as a Journal of Internal Medicine study concluded months ago. Simply providing access to fresh groceries will not necessarily change the mindsets of people who have been provided neither the educational tools to understand why fresh foods are better than cheaper, processed foods, nor the skills to know how to use those groceries. But it is a start. Access is the first step and it must be followed by education.

When it comes to healthy eating, the deck is truly stacked against our children, especially in underserved communities. Schools today need to think creatively about how to weave health literacy into lessons. We need healthy behavior to become part of our schools' culture by weaving it into teachers' continuing education programs, mixing it into daily lesson plans, enforcing it in the breakfast and lunch programs, as well as by having positive role models tout it in our communities. Perhaps making dinner should be daily homework for all fourth grade students nationally. I have a collection of Common Threads recipes that cost less than $10 to feed a family of four using five ingredients (accessible in food deserts) and take 20-30 minutes to make. Our team would happily donate recipes to the cause, including Elijah's Engusi Soup. Now there's an idea.