Obesity Kills

Obesity kills, it steals from our quality of life and the quantity of our years. It leads to other serious illnesses – the ones we dread the most: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It hits hardest with our children because they are in their formative years, establishing habits and lifestyles that will imprint the rest of their lives, contributing to how well they socialize, absorb their education, stay out of trouble, and think of themselves. Encouraging healthy eating and making healthy food accessible not only to low-income persons, but all people in the community, is probably the best thing we can do to create a better America and world. It will pay dividends a thousand-fold in the quality and productivity of our community life.

Eight years ago, as the new Executive Director of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, I was invited to serve on the Childhood Obesity Prevention Task Force. Summoned by Supervisors James Patterson and Jerry Lenthall, it included a wide selection of organizations and persons involved in education, health, nutrition, food services, and non-profit organizations. We met regularly for a couple of years, created a strategic plan for the county, and an ongoing organization called HEAL SLO to sustain the work for the years ahead. It was my eye-opener to the problem of obesity in our country and closer to home in our county.

The Task Force was also an opportunity for me to meet the network of people in SLO County with concern for the not yet widely accepted problem of obesity in children. What I learned gave me the conviction that the Food Bank has to be part of the solution to this problem, a problem that was and unfortunately still is placing our quality of life as a community at risk.

This solution seeking movement was occurring nation-wide, of course, and now, almost 10 years later, we have learned from a Federal study reported on February 18th that there has been a 43% drop in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade, the first broad decline in this epidemic that is threatening us.

Obesity often starts in childhood. Children who are overweight or obese at 3 to 5 years old are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults.

Barry M. Popkin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has tracked American food purchases in a large data project, said families with children had been buying lower-calorie foods over the past decade; a pattern he said was unrelated to the economic downturn.

He credited those habits and changes to the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), for the decline in obesity among young children. The WIC program, which subsidizes food for low-income women, reduced funding for fruit juices, cheese and eggs and increased it for whole fruits and vegetables. *

Another possible explanation is that some combination of state, local and federal policies aimed at reducing obesity is starting to make a difference. First lady, Michelle Obama, has led a campaign to change the eating habits of children and increase exercise, and 10,000 child care centers across the country have signed on. The news announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) included a remark from Mrs. Obama: “I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans.” *

It is surprising how fast we can overcome such social ills once we put our minds and efforts toward the cause. It is a great gift to our children that will continue to pay dividends for the rest of their lives, and a great gift to the world to which they will contribute their productivity and creativity.

Looking back to that Childhood Obesity Prevention Task Force, I am proud of our county leadership and of our community to have taken this issue on and know that we are making great strides in the battle against hunger and poor nutrition right here at home. I’m grateful for the partnerships that have formed all over SLO county to address the problem locally, and I hope you are as excited as I am to see that it is working.

* Sources of information in this Blog are available upon request.

To Alleviate or to End, That is the Question.

To Alleviate or to End, That is the Question

Our mission statement at the Food Bank Coalition includes the words, “to alleviate hunger.” The question of whether we should change our mission from alleviating hunger to ending hunger comes up for us from time to time. Is alleviate a lofty enough goal? Why not end hunger? Many other food banks strive for that. Another way the goal of ending hunger is stated is that the goal is to put ourselves out of business by ending hunger. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Still, our mission statement remains as it is, “The Mission of the Food Bank Coalition is to work with a network of community partners in San Luis Obispo County to alleviate hunger and build a healthier community.” As we move into the second 25 years from the first 25 years of fighting hunger in San Luis Obispo County and after having led the Food Bank Coalition for about a third of our existence, I want to share with you why I think that to “alleviate” may be a better goal than to end it.

My premise is that the process of alleviating hunger is more important than the goal of ending it. It is not a perfect world, and the hope that hunger will ever be eliminated completely is chasing rainbows. It is good to strive for that, of course, but not at the risk of missing the true value, the real pot of gold that we have to offer the world in the process of alleviating hunger. Alleviating hunger is (or ought to be) so much more than providing food. It is recognizing an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life through an act of compassion. To end hunger can be simply be to offer something to eat. But to alleviate hunger is to help transform the state of hunger into the experience of knowing someone cares, the recognition that one is valued, and that one has importance in this world. To alleviate is to ease the fears, the sense of dread and loneliness that one has when all seems lost and there is nowhere or no one to turn to for help. To alleviate hunger is to instill self-esteem, to inspire the goal of self-reliance and hope beyond hunger to new possibilities.

To accept the reality and stubborn endurance of hunger in the world is the first step toward meaningfully doing battle with it. The dragon we fight, however, is not the dragon of hunger alone. Rather, it is the diminishment of spirit, the shame piled on by society, and the fear of being alone. Therefore we need to feed the person as well as the body. In this process, it is vital not to act as a judge to determine the “worthiness” of someone seeking help and not to envy those who get something for free while we have to pay for it. Sometimes we may grudgingly give food to someone whom we believe has the ability to work for it. However, it is important to remember that every person matters and is valuable, and we don’t usually know his or her circumstance that has brought them to need help. Helping ought to demonstrate that we truly care and honor people as persons.

At the Food Bank we have dedicated ourselves to the distribution of what we like to call “real food.” By this we usually mean food that will help someone physically in positive rather than negative ways. But shouldn’t we also be open to the idea that even that doesn’t capture the full meaning of real food? Doesn’t the food become truly real when it is the means of exchange that brings two human beings together in community, seeking to share the hope and find the courage to build a better tomorrow, one life at a time? Isn’t it a matter of recognizing that this isn’t a perfect world, but there is an opportunity in the midst of imperfection that wouldn’t exist otherwise? Could it be that a bit of food given humbly and respectfully could actually heal, lift, empower, restore, and encourage far beyond what the basic nutritious food groups offer?

If our goal is to end hunger, we have little basis for celebrating after 25 years. Hunger is still with us, and likely always will be. But let our goal be to alleviate – to connect in a meaningful moment with a stranger that needs help and could be uplifted by the encounter. In this way, the food becomes so much more. If we are doing that, we have every right to celebrate because in the end, compassion and encouragement are the most important gifts we have to offer. The work of the Food Bank and in fact all human kindness is so much more than what it appears to be.