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

Archive for the tag “childhood obesity”

The Economic Burden of Overweight

My plane was delayed. I sat exhausted in the airport in Texas, sipping a coffee. There was a line of customers forming into the McDonalds about 30 feet to my left. I began to doze. In the haze of fatigue everything blurs a bit. It suddenly felt as though I was on a different planet (I had just seen the movie Planet 51 with my boys). People weren’t green, but they were…well huge.

People walked past me in families or groups of four or six, almost all seriously overweight. I do not know where the line crosses between overweight and obese. Paul Zane Pilzner once defined it as people who no longer control their weight or lifestyle. This is not an anti-obesity post. I respect anyone who is taking steps to ensure their body is healthy, but i fear the repercussions that we all face.

I remember my first trips to the US. Admittedly, they were to California and the beach, surf, and multiple gyms beguiled me. Now not everyone in California is healthy by any means, but that seemed to be the perception.

Last Wednesday, I wrote the first part of a post suggesting that a sustainable planet needed changes in what we dish onto our plates and into our bodies. Today, I want to propose that there is a direct correlation between our health and economy.

The U.S. budget is just over $15 trillion (as is our debt apparently). In 2009, health care costs reached $2.5 trillion—nearly 17 percent of the GDP – and Paul Zane Pilzner suggests that there is a further $1 trillion dollars in the Wellness industry (‘health’ food, fitness, vitamins, and other therapies).

Gallup estimates that we lost over $153 million in lost productivity. But enough with the statistics. I don’t really think that anyone questions the fact that an unhealthy society cannot be an economically successful company. In fact, how many countries where disease and ill health are prevalent are doing well economically? On the contrary, if you look at the more successful nations (Scandinavian and Japan), they score highly on both the economic and health categories.

The question that I am stuck with, and I think at the core of Obamacare, is how much can the government intervene in how people choose to live their lives? There a re two points that I feel we need to realize:

1) When more that half the nation are overweight, it directly impacts everyone’s finances.

2) I don’t believe these people are making choices or feel that they can turn their lives around.

The battle against harmful transfats in fast food is an example of how we can make the necessary changes.  I applaud First Lady Michelle Obama, who has taken on the fight against childhood obesity.

We have messed up the economy for our children and their children. Perhaps we can be more of service to them if we can educate them to live a healthy and productive lifestyle. And this just might right some economic wrongs we have inflicted on them as well. 


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).

Concord Hymn Revisited: Story Telling for Social Change

…here once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard round the world…

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Concord Hymn” in 1836 for a dedication in Concord, Massachusetts to honor the men who gave their lives at the Battle of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775), the first battle of the American Revolution.

Travel left 3,000 miles to a spot just outside the glamour of San Francisco Bay. Here sits Concord CA, a small working class city at the weathered heels of Mt Diablo and flanked to the north by the bay’s brackish waters that glow in the dull flames of oil refining. At its southern flank rests the plastic town of Walnut Creek packed with brand-o-phile stores doing their part to fuel the debtor-nation.

Photo by Ted Hamiter  http://www.flickr.com/photos/trhamiter/2890931015/

Step forward to the year 2065, an author is honoring a movement and the date of December 21, 2012 with a poem. Much like the village of Concord MA on the outskirts of Boston, the non-descript city of Concord CA, would eventually become known as the marker of Economic Revolution.

The year 2011 was rough on the middleclass and the future didn’t look bright. In early 2012 the economy was still stagnant, China and India were consuming more energy and US gas prices hovered around $6 per gallon. Thirty years after Reagan devastated energy policies the country still had no cohesive plan. Because 2012 was an election year, Republicans were continuing the transfer of wealth to the upper-class and Big Business. The outlook for the common man was bleak.

A small group of frustrated citizens gathered and outlined a socially-just plan that would improve the living standards for all Concordians; the plan was published on the Mayan Time of Transition, December 21, 2012. The plan had a one-two punch with the first hitting immediately and the second coming about ten years later. For the initial phase, the group endorsed the Transition Town movement that focused on local economies and sustainability.

Within ten short years the city was completely transformed:

1)      There was an excess in local organic vegetable and protein food production.

2)      Unemployment was at a negative 15%.

3)      90% of suburban polluting lawns were converted to edible gardens.

4)      Water consumption dropped by 70%.

5)      Rooftops were retrofitted for algae production and then harvested for liquid energy conversion. The city became a green oil producer.

6)      There were no food deserts in any part of the city, fresh food was available within a five minute walk, children and adults enjoyed real food and obesity was below 15%.

7)      The environment was being regenerated and the city was carbon negative.

But the citizens weren’t satisfied. They knew their Garden of Eden was in danger. Sustainability and a happy healthy society are the enemy of Big Business and financial institutions that need an ever-expanding debtor economy to survive. The evil empires and their crony politicians would be coming.

By now the Transition Movement was sweeping the nation. It was time to release the final punch; the knockout punch that would put Big Business on the canvas where it belongs, supporting citizens and not controlling them. On January 1, 2023 most Concord citizens stopped paying loan obligations for homes and cars. They used social media to encourage the nation to do the same. Banks, Wall Street and insurance were crippled—the robber barons were forced to act responsible for the first time since the early1980s. The redistribution of wealth–back to the middleclass–had begun.

…here once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard round the world…

-Roger Ingalls


Roger Ingalls is well travelled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

When Walmart Cares About Our Health More Than The FDA

Last month, Whole Foods suspended their composting program because it was too expensive. Ironically, on the same day, Walmart announced that they were beginning a composting program at most of their stores.

Michael Jacobson’s article in the New York Times caught my eye. The FDA Should Be Bolder Than Walmart tells how Walmart is using its muscle to help accelerate a number of changes including:

– taking concrete steps to reduce their carbon footprint,

– forcing their retailers and distributors to do the same,

– supporting the fight against childhood obesity by insisting on the removal of trans fats from products that they sell. Though this isn’t a stated claim, they are probably helping cut cardiovascular diseases as well.

– insisting that their suppliers across the board cut sodium levels significantly.

Jacobson says that”Wal-Mart’s plan to lower produce prices (modestly) should increase consumption and (modestly) lower the risk of heart disease and generally improve health. All told, Wal-Mart will be saving thousands of lives, something it should be very proud of.”

The First Lady agrees and has openly complimented Walmart. What would be great, as Jacobson says, would be for the First Lady to put her influence behind pushing the FDA to lead the war, instead of following behind everyone … from quite a distance.

Now before anyone wonders whether the author of The Accidental Activist (an anti-multinational corporation novel) is getting soft, let me leave you with this.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) 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 www.alonshalev.com

Food Justice San Francisco Style

Our City (capital C intended) by the bay has a proud history of food justice and environmental policy. We are perhaps one of the first cities to make the connection between low academic scores and nutrition.

Banning sugar-saturated soda in the school grounds or plastic bags from groceries is one thing. Taking on McDonald’s, however, now that is brave. McDonald’s have no compulsion to take on anyone and everyone, threaten them with court action and intimidate them until they back down. There is a roll call on the McLibel DVD of all the newspapers, magazines and talk shows that have crossed swords with McDonald’s. All have meekly sheathed their swords and mumbled an apology rather than go to court.

Of course, there were two young people who refused to back down and embarked on what became the longest court case in British history. Click here for the factual account, and here for the fictional one.

Back to San Francisco and a city ordinance has been proposed that will ban McDonald’s from offering a toy with the purchase of a Happy Meal unless there is a limitation on calories and the addition of fruit and vegetables. This proposal is, by the way, aimed at all fast food chains, but McDonald’s Happy Meals seems to have provided the impetus for the initiative.

McDonald’s, naturally, aren’t impressed with a Left Coast concern for growing childhood obesity or the plummeting school grades that are becoming common around our country. When Supervisor Eric Mar proposed the law, McDonald’s Corporation sent a team of executives to City Hall to protest.

The rest of us should feel grateful to McDonald’s – you can fight City Hall. McDonald’s claimed that this proposal would deny their customers the freedom to chose and is an attack on their and other businesses models of marketing.

To be fair, McDonald’s are not the only business exploiting children. On the other hand, City Hall is not just going after the fast-food industry. Our Mayor, Gavin Newsom (Link) has signed an order banning sweetened sodas from vending machines on city property, broadened a ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies to include grocery stores and big-box stores that also have pharmacies.

But with election season looming, the mayor has slowed his support. His opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, has accused him of trying to be the food police.

Karen Wells, who is McDonald’s VP for Nutrition and Menu Strategy claims that it is the responsibility of the parent to decide what their child should eat. Fair point. She also claimed that it would be difficult to implement. Now you’ve lost me.

“It’s different from what we’re doing today and different from what we’ve done for 25 years, successfully,” Wells said.

Now you really have lost me. It is a generally accepted principle that the companies who survive and thrive for decades do so because they are able to adapt to changing consumer consciousness and demand. While a multinational corporation is governed by the bottom line, surely there must be some acknowledgment of society’s need. In fact, if we all die of obesity connected disease, who will buy the burgers?

McDonald’s nutrition director, Cynthia Goody, points out that there is no evidence suggesting childhood obesity would be reduced by requiring a fruit or vegetable with all meals. It doesn’t deserve a comment…

…But I can’t resist.

If children see McDonald’s as an amazing place to go to and eat, couldn’t McDonald’s provide an educational example, a role model, for healthy nutrition? If children get used to eating fruit and vegetables at such cool places as McDonald’s, won’t it make eating fruit and vegetables at home easier?


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) 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 www.alonshalev.com




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