the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

U.S. War on Obesity Is Fought — and Lost — One Meal at a Time

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The girl basked in a plate of greasy food fit for a hard-working lumberjack.

She sat in a Waffle House — a chain restaurant hardly known for its slimming fare — and chowed down on a ham and cheese omelet, hash browns, a waffle, two pieces of toast. She drank a vanilla Coke oozing with corn syrup. There may have been a bowl of grits involved — although that might have been on her mother’s mammoth order. The girl had not reached 12 yet. She wasn’t chubby with baby fat. No, she was on the road to obesity.

The image haunts me even now, a few weeks later.

While we pretend to eat healthy and shun processed foods, America is hardly an organic, toned wonderland. As one colleague wondered recently, are there more large-sized people around or has public education made her more aware of the problem?

The answer: America is getting larger. The nation hooked on super-sized portions is becoming super-sized itself.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a drastic increase in obesity rates during the last 20 years. In 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent. Since the 1970s, obesity among children has drastically increased, even those ages 2 to 5 — from 5 percent to 12.4 percent. Sixty-four percent of Americans are considered overweight or obese.

This is far from comforting.

The causes are vast. Children and adults park in front of computers and TVs and don’t move. They consume more calories than they burn off with exercise. The country is hooked on processed foods with such additives as high fructose corn syrup and massive amounts of sodium.

Fresh produce is hard to get, or expensive, especially in low-income areas. The bottom line: It’s cheaper to eat unhealthy than it is to eat healthy. In one study, the Food Trust in Philadelphia and D.C. Hunger Solutions found health problems to be greater in neighborhoods that lack grocers offering fresh produce and other healthy food options.

Ironically, this is most true in the agricultural rural South, a region known for its greasy, fatty fried foods (fried cookie dough, anyone?) and ever-increasing poverty levels.

Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas has been No. 1 on the obesity chart and, conversely, No. 1 in child food insecurity, which means that 26.6 percent of children lack access at various times to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. Nonetheless, the state was a leader in combating fat, long before first lady Michelle Obama seized the cause.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who was overweight himself at one time, led the healthy charge in 2003 when he signed Act 1220 — a multi-pronged initiative to get Arkansas’ children healthy. One key component was measuring the body mass index of children and sending reports to parents or guardians.

Joy Rockenbach, project director for Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, says that Arkansas has enacted numerous initiatives in public schools to make students healthier. For example, there are no longer vending machines in elementary schools. But they are still in middle and high schools — although not available until 30 minutes after lunch. Teachers can’t offer candy as rewards nor can they take activity time away as a punishment.

But adults need to become healthy, too.

Rockenbach says that the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention, like many similar groups in other states, has also given grants for community efforts. One town’s mayor declared that only water can be sold in vending machines in city-owned parks. Other towns have created or expanded their community gardens as well as walking trails. In one African-American neighborhood in Little Rock, the community bought a corner produce market and is building tilapia tanks for fresh fish.

Last week, the Senate passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. It will provide an additional $4.5 billion over 10 years to federal child nutrition programs, including school lunches, once it is signed into law. It’s the first government increase in the program since 1973.

The bill allocates $1.2 billion to increase the number of children receiving food. The rest of the money would be used to improve the quality of school meals, including an extra six cents per meal per student for schools that meet new, stricter nutrition standards and money for schools to establish gardens and to use local foods in cafeterias.

For all the legislation and government intervention, I still wonder about the girl at Waffle House. Remember chubby kids in your school? Sure you do. Cruel kids repeatedly picked on them.

In the 1980s, flamboyant exercise guru Richard Simmons was everywhere touting healthy lifestyles and talking about his life as the fat kid. It shaped — literally — his adult life.

“When people tell you you are ugly, no good, fat, your self image is so low you don’t care if you open a refrigerator and pull up a chair,” Simmons, who visits hundreds of schools a year, told me. ”

He’s been working on legislation, too, helping push through the Fit Kids Act, which would amend No Child Left Behind to ensure children are active during the school day and learn to stay healthy through diet and exercise. Earlier this year, a version passed the House but has stalled in the Senate.

“You don’t have to have Washington tell you what to do though,” Simmons said. “Eat a salad instead of the frozen pizza. Take a walk. You have to retrain your brain. But, in this country, sadly, there’s always a $1 cheeseburger somewhere and parents buy them for themselves and their children. It’s going to take a lot of changes, sacrifice, but we should say, ‘Americans your exercise excuse card is filled.’ “

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Written by suziparker1313

March 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm

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