Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Robbing the Next Generation – Childhood Obesity

There is a certain sense of irony writing a blog post about obesity on this day – seven-eleven – but here we go. My previous post on this topic ruffled some feathers, not least among those who are struggling with overweight and its repercussions. I know it is a sensitive topic and I have no intention of belittling anyone or their health challenges. I applaud anyone who has the strength to take steps to turn things around and am full of admiration for those I see turning up at my gym and pushing themselves daily on the cardio and other machines. 

But obesity is a growing issue in this country and we must address it. Nothing is as difficult as seeing children already walking such  a path at a young age. Parents have so much to struggle with today: the intense demands of homework, the lure of screens, the danger of letting their children out in the streets. All this in addition to the strains of a full time job and often only one parent in the picture. It is hard to find the strength to say no too often, hard to find the energy to cook a healthy meal that doesn’t resemble what children are bombarded with on TV and elsewhere by clowns.

First Lady, Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity turned 18 months earlier this week. Not quite the terrible twos yet, but the First Lady seems to know what she is up against. The skeptics have made sure she knows, claiming that the money poured into advertising and promotion by the huge multinationals that run the food and agriculture industry might make promises but won’t risk their profit margins.

But Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association, is one of many who disagrees and claims that Mrs. Obama “has been a spark plug, raising awareness about the potential future of the U.S. as a nation of fat, unhealthy people unless the trend is reversed.” She acknowledges that Mrs. Obama has been doing it in ways that health food advocates can’t.

She has addressed law makers at every level, school groups, food producer and other constituencies, urging more bike paths and playgrounds, to serve healthier school lunches, and to produce and sell healthier food. Mrs. Obama has visited schools across the country to encourage initiatives such as  fruit and vegetable gardens, healthy options for school lunches, and participating in exercise clinics with children.

Most impressive in my opinion (and it is all impressive), is her work advocating at food manufacturers, beverage makers and stores. A little corner store you might have heard of, Walmart, pledged to reformulate thousands of its store-brand products to reduce sodium, sugar and fat, and provide incentives to its suppliers to do the same. Walmart has also pledged to cut its prices for  fresh fruit and vegetables, and develop a platform that clearly identifies healthier choices. This is a big player move. Walmart’s grocery business accounts for about 15%  of the U.S. grocery industry.

“We are seeing a fundamental shift in our national conversation about how we make and sell food,” Mrs. Obama said when she addressed Walmart executives at the beginning of the year. “That’s something that wasn’t happening just a year ago.”

People get worked up about children, whether they are their own or not. We have saddled the next generation with an enormous debt and a crashing environment. Sometimes these topics seem to massive for us to do anything about it and we feel disempowered. 

But to create a healthy diet and lifestyle for our children is something we can grasp. We can run around with them at the park instead of reaching for Netflix. We can volunteer at our local school vegetable garden, and we can think about what we serve at the dinner table. There is an advert on the radio at the moment urging us to give our children water or fruit juice rather than a can of sugar. We don’t, perhaps shouldn’t, make radical changes all at once, but the next generation’s journey begins with small first steps.

Thank you, Mrs. Obama. Now excuse me if I go and play soccer with my sons.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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