Last month, a New York Times headline declared “City’s Efforts Fail to Dent Child Obesity.” 40% of New York City schoolchildren in kindergarten through eighth grade are overweight or obese, same as last year, despite the city’s “effort” to reduce that rate. NYC schools have replaced whole milk with 1% milk, banned sugary drinks from school vending machines, and restricted bake sales to once a month (seriously?). A school exercise program has kids pretend they’re cab drivers and “bend down to go through a tunnel and jump to get over a pothole.” (Um, okay. At least they’re moving, I guess.) Child obesity rates are lower in affluent neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Tribeca and off the charts (45%) in lower income areas like East Harlem and Bushwick.
And the headlines continue to roll in. Google “childhood obesity” and watch the hits go on for pages.
Fair warning: A rant is on the way.
Nowhere in the NYT article does it mention the city’s effort – in addition to making changes to food offered in schools, banning trans fats in restaurants, and adding calorie counts to menus – to provide low-income parents with access to fresh fruits and vegetables and with education about how and why to change theirs and their children’s eating (and physical activity) habits.
It’s not brain surgery! Providing kids with healthy food and teaching them about nutrition in-school is entirely useless if, when they go home, they’re presented with Cheetos and Coke as an after-school snack because their parents can’t afford a better option, or, in some cases, don’t even realize that Cheetos and Coke are poisoning their kids because Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola have “added whole grains” or “reduced sugar” in a thinly-veiled attempt to address the nation’s health crisis. (Note: I used to go on and on about personal responsibility. “Food companies can market all they want but you choose what you put in your and your kid’s body.” Well, marketing unhealthy food to kids in the U.S. has reached epic proportions. It’s moved beyond the “nag factor” and into brainwashing territory…and, by the way, has been banned outright in the U.K. and other countries.)
How is it that in a city as affluent as New York – and in a country as affluent as ours – we don’t recognize that it all comes down to access? Low-income communities don’t have access to healthy food for one very simple reason: Our government subsidizes food that has been shown to contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity – dairy and beef (via subsidies of the corn that feeds livestock) – while letting vegetable and fruit farmers fend for themselves. Is it any surprise that an apple costs more than a hamburger at McDonald’s? To make matters worse, our massive industrial agriculture complex is more concerned with profits than with keeping people healthy. As a result, processed food high in fat and sugar is far less expensive than real food. We are, to a large extent, victims of our environment.
Before anyone gets upset, thinking that I’ve blamed meat, dairy, and “big agriculture” for the obesity epidemic, let me say that I have no problem with consuming meat, dairy, or the occasional junk food treat. My question is this: Why don’t our agriculture policies match our nutrition research? Everyone KNOWS we should be eating more fruits and vegetables and yet we continue to make it nearly impossible for the average working family to afford anything other than processed food with questionable (read: zero) nutritional value. While I applaud New York for it’s efforts, the city – like the rest of the country – is addressing symptoms of obesity instead of root causes.
So, what can each of us do until our food system catches up? Here are a few thoughts. Please share your own in the comments, especially those of you who are parents.
- Join a CSA (community supported agriculture). Payment is based on a sliding scale, which means that your contribution subsidizes fresh produce for lower income families in your CSA. (For the aspiring gourmet cooks among you, CSAs test your cooking creativity as you find ways to use each week’s pile of fresh produce before it goes bad!)
- Shop at farmer’s markets whenever possible. If your town doesn’t have one, gather some like-minded friends and start one. Many farmer’s markets now accept food stamps, making them another great way to provide fresh food to everyone in your community.
- Educate yourself about the realities of supermarkets and make your buying choices accordingly. See 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Supermarkets and blogs like Food Politics – from NYU Nutrition and Sociology professor Marion Nestle – and Fooducate.
- Organize a health and wellness workshop at your school…for parents AND kids. Parents should have the chance to learn everything their kids are learning about nutrition and healthy living. How else can they be expected to support their kids in making healthy choices?
- Make physical activity, food shopping, and cooking family activities. Kids look to adults for what’s cool as much as they look to their friends. (Yeah, I know…not conventional wisdom; but I spent enough years working for kids entertainment companies to remember that surprising nugget from market research.)