2011: The Year of the Vegetable

The epidemic of childhood obesity is now the nation’s disease, an ailment, if you will, afflicting the body politic. The phenomenon of obese American children is no anomaly, but rather the inevitable outcome of untoward legislative and corporate influences, lifestyle trends, marketing machinations, economics, and modern family life. The factors driving the childhood obesity epidemic are varied and multitudinous—a dystopic cornucopia, one in which the fruits and vegetables are replaced with hamburgers, French fries and soda.

The lineup of culprits includes disproportionate portions, urban food deserts, school vending machines, corn subsidies, marketing, cheap empty calories, latchkey children, supersized fast food, trans-fats, the disappearing home-cooked meal, expensive produce, too much restaurant dining, vanishing phys ed. classes, sugary breakfast cereals, cultural environment, erratic diet, the Farm Bill, the fateful sirens of sugar and fat, too frequent snacking, fried everything, sedentary hours kids spend watching TV or online, big ag, nutritional ignorance, misleading labeling, junk food. What we have here is a conspiracy to render children fat, and it has succeeded.

Whoever is to blame for this phenomenon, it is surely not the afflicted kids. We cannot expect them to make the right food choices, when healthy foods are out of reach, and nutrition-smart role models are not in evidence. The First Lady’s initiative represents a welcome beginning to what will have to become a nutritional revolution, both for children and adults.

I feel for the overweight and obese kids who are often marginalized by their peers, their elders, and popular culture—as if these young victims had wished their way into their predicament. The reflexive disfavor accorded obesity is one of the last bulwarks of self-righteous snideness. As obesity is an illness, and its rapid spread an epidemic, we are stigmatizing the sick for their sickness.

The saddest thing about childhood obesity is it is unnecessary. Americans seem to forget that our country remains the breadbasket of the world. It is inexcusable that American children are getting so much lousy food and so little good food.

As American adults morph into grown children, becoming increasingly self-involved and impulsive, American children are correspondingly prematurely aging, suffering from ailments that were once largely the provenance of older adults.

The health effects of obesity are well-established. The long-term effects include “early onset diabetes” and premature hip and joint problems. Overweight children are deprived of so much that makes youth youth. “Old is the new young.”

As an agriculturist and horticulturist, I can reveal what makes a significant and lasting difference to children’s diets and overall health, a resource conspicuously overlooked amid all the national hand-wringing about overweight kids. The answer: fruits and vegetables.

Wise and good people have mightily stressed the complex problems causing obesity, while giving too little attention to the simple, straightforward solution. As parents, educators, nutritionists and marketers, we have to imbue our children with the love of—and consumption of—the most beneficial food for growing bodies: fresh vegetables and fruits.

Despite evidence of the benefits of fruits and vegetables—home-grown or store-bought—for both children and adults, all efforts to promote increased consumption have failed.  It’s easier to persuade an adult to quit smoking than a child to eat vegetables.

As kids, we imitate our elders, who teach most effectively by example. According to a recent news report, just 26 percent of adults have three or more servings of vegetables a day, a number that includes those who deem a tomato slice or lettuce on a burger as a “vegetable serving”. In other words, roughly 80% of US adults scarcely eat any vegetables.

Without exception, vegetables and fruits are healthful and not fattening. Children need to acquire the taste for vegetables; it’s not a given: every food other than breast milk is an acquired taste. The enjoyment of vegetables is simply a matter of education and familiarity, as in “family”. Children will happily eat squash, artichoke or broccoli—to the delight of the parents who taught them to do so. As for fruits, children can easily enjoy and consume them, but, like vegetables, fruits must at the ready—at least as available as all the junky alternatives.

In our research here at Burpee, we have found kids who not only eat, but grow vegetables alongside their parents, eat them regularly and with gusto. Peas, green beans and raw carrots are particular favorites with kids—ironically, the very vegetables that kids are proverbially told to eat, their parents’ admonishing fingers futilely wagging.

A full-fledged introduction to vegetables will invariably replace the junk food habit. In her recent New York Times piece, author Jane Brody wrote, “Vegetables provide dietary bulk, filling the stomach and reducing the appetite for higher-calorie foods”.

While not all American families have the benefit of a sun-filled backyard for a vegetable garden, companies like Burpee offer many vegetable seeds and plants that you can grow easily in containers—even Brussels Sprouts!

In the public sector, much can be done to help combat childhood obesity. Eighteen years ago, as president of The American Horticultural Society, I initiated a children’s gardening program; an annual symposium drew thousands of educators and community gardeners with the goal of educating and inspiring children to grow gardens in their school and neighborhoods.

Yet no single institution is sufficient; fighting an epidemic requires a multifaceted effort.  Churches could do much more to inspire families to grow vegetables. Public and private botanical and community gardening groups should augment efforts to lure neighbors to their educational demonstration gardens.

Most families, whether in the city or suburbs, can plant at least a “starter garden”—involving pre-teen children in the planting, tending and harvesting. Burpee and all home garden companies offer an array of varieties that can be grown successfully by the first time gardener, whether in a yard or a patio.

Let’s make 2011 the Year of the Vegetable. We have nothing to lose but our waistlines, and everything to gain in terms of nutrition and health. While the First Lady has boldly focused on the issue of childhood obesity, this is an issue both political parties can endorse. Vegetables are deliciously nonpartisan.

A slightly altered version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on January 3, 2011.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 3rd, 2011 at 3:32 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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23 Responses to “2011: The Year of the Vegetable”

  1. Denise said:

    Your comment about childhood obesity could not be more valid. And kudos to the First Lady Michelle Obama for sending a clear message to the Americans how easy it is to eat vegetables and stay healthy as a result.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Denise.

  2. Lizbeth said:

    When I was a child, my Norwegian immigrant parents served us root vegetable soup — way too often. Oh, did I long for hot dogs and corn like my “normal” American neighbors. Now, as adults, my brothers and I eat everything — and we are healthy. My kids, on the other hand, are ever so picky, eating few veggies, and I actually let them get away with that! Fortunately, since I recently started vegetable gardening, my daughter is much more enthusiastic about eating her 5/day. That is, in the sunny summertime. ;-)

    • George said:

      Dear Lizbeth,

      I never thought I’d ever get to say, “I rest my case”. Thank you! By the way, think of the kitchen as an extension of the garden, in terms of getting your daughter involved. Just mind the dangerous utensils. Thanks again.

  3. laura perkins said:

    great job summarizing this issue!!!!

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, Laura.

  4. Denise said:

    I heartily agree with your article. In these days of “quality time” concerns, it seems that quality needs to be qualfied. It is not just eating better food, it is also becoming physically active and involved in growing and doing the actual work needed to maintain any garden – food or flower. There are many wonderful experiences to share in doing this. Think of it as going to a “Farmville” gym, maybe more people would get out and try it since it is far less frustrating and doesn’t wrack havoc on your computer!!!

    • George said:

      Dear Denise,

      Thank you for an extremely interesting response. “Quality needs to be qualified”, indeed. One day soon I shall join in your observations about “cyberspace”. Nick just wrote about it a bit in his last guest blog. I, for one, could go on for days about these subjects. Let me put it this way, “A word tells a thousand pictures”. Thanks again.

  5. Sharon L said:

    This is the most lucid and intelligent writing that I have read on one of the most damaging diseases of the 21st Century. Is it permissable to submit this article to local newspapers? We need to keep a focus on this problem with strong, clear messages such as yours. Thank you for addressing this issue!

    • George said:

      Dear Sharon,

      I am at the mercy of the Wall Street Journal, the fine newspaper that published this in a condensed form, and holds the copyright. However, I shall ask them if I may circulate it to other newspapers and magazines. Thanks for your excellent suggestion, and thoughtful compliment.

  6. Lorraine said:

    AMEN!! Thank you. I’m doing gardens with my grandkids. Seems their parents are so busy making a living that they don’t get to this, so grandma is stepping in, hoping to develop a love of gardening – and vegetables and fruit.

    • George said:

      Thank you and God bless you, Lorraine. Please post again of your progress if you have the opportunity.

  7. Tena Ehlers said:

    Just wondering what Burpee’s parent company, Syngenta, thought about your blaming the Farm Bill and corn subsidies for childhood obesity.

    • George said:

      Dear Tena,

      Thank you for posting.

      Please don’t take this personally, but I would advise you to check facts more carefully before posting things on the web. We are a family-owned business. I and my family are the sole owner. It has never been owned by Syngenta or any other giant conglomerate, foreign or domestic. There was a brief period in the 1980s when it was owned by ITT, but they ran it at “arm’s length” and did a good job. Please advise others that you may have told of these facts. There is a lot of incorrect, mean-spirited and potentially harmful disinformation on the internet. I am sure you did not mean to be part of this group. As for politics, I don’t get involved. I vote, and that’s about it. Should food be safe? Of course. But your concern at the moment should be, in my view, who is “feeding” you lies about companies. Thank you.

  8. wWilliam Brownlee said:

    Amen! You have spoken out my heart concerning Americans and our poor choice of food suppliers.

    • George said:

      Thank you very much, William. I hope this year you can try growing your own.

  9. Kay Marcum said:

    A little long, but the message right on! We eat out of our garden year round! We get good exercise & top quality food! I wish more people would understand the pleasures of home grown vegetables!

    Kay Marcum

    • George said:

      Thank you, Kay. The Wall Street Journal published the condensed version, so I posted the longer one. Something for every taste, I guess. Thanks again.

  10. Steve Fowler said:

    Hi George;
    Great article! As one who plants window boxes of letuce several times a season, even in last year’s scorching summer we had great yields. Herbs grew on the deck and in the flower gardens, true ‘potager’ gardening. The harvested dill seeds were used in canning some of a neighbor’s organically grown cucumbers and our peppers. The effort is not all that much different than driving to a store for faster food. Thanks for proselytizing for vegetables! We dropped the pasta/pizza intake, don’t go to fast food restaurants, and when we do eat out, we don’t eat any differently than at home, i.e., no appetizers and no desserts. Many places now offer steamed veggies if you say ‘no fries please.’ Meal times s/b family time, all electronic devices are off, phones are not answered. I’d like to see discussion on stopping the cycle of having kids do too many extra-curricular activities/lessons and not having enough time to just be kids and play. That is one reason why there is not enough time to sit down and eat right.
    You go, George!!!

    • George said:

      Thank you for a righteous response. I was thinking the other day about how, not so long ago, food was mainly sustenance; there was no such thing as “taste”. Rather, there was good or poor quality, or inedible or unpotable. Food was porridge, breads of different kinds; some cultures ate dairy, but it was not nearly so common—nor as refined, and meat was rare, so to speak. Vegetables were mostly seasonal and root vegetables, the most common type, were often stored. Cabbage was fairly ubiquitous. Salt was expensive, as was butter. Milk and cream were marks of prosperity and signs of good times. A jar of fresh cream was a common gift for a special friend or relative. Then, about 100 years ago, canning, storing and, later, freezing techniques took a quantum leap forward. Supply exploded, prices dropped and, thus, the economics changed. As a consequence, the ways of the household changed.

      That’s some of the thinking behind my Wall Street Journal piece, which addresses only today. No one is to blame. We like to eat. It is a discipline to control the desire to eat. After all, gluttony is the seventh of the seven deadly sins; and, in almost all other non-western cultures, it is frowned upon, for good reason. It hurts you and it hurts the family, clan, tribe and society.

      You’d enjoy Mrs. Burpee’s reminiscence of her Scottish-American childhood at “How I Became Interested In Vegetables”, Part One and Part Two. They contain some memorable moments and observations about food. She was a remarkable lady.

  11. iris Bird said:

    Horray, for all of these fabulous opinions,
    I grew up eating nothing but the best of fruits & vegetables, nuts, & fresh milk. Grand mother & all females in my family baked our bread, & all other goodies such as cookies for our school lunches.We ate everything that was put on our plates. We ate nothing that was not “good for you.” Not one family member was ever overweight.
    We were not forced to eat items we did not care for…Just taste it, and aquire a “taste for it.”
    My grand daughter, 17, has never eaten a peach, plum,banana, etc..because she does not like them.
    Her mother, eats all fruit & vegetables, because I raised her to like them. Better to let them eat as they please, than to argue !
    MOST children ..teen agers, eat junk food & are over weight, because the parents are too BUSY to prepare anything worth eating soooo..to the Pizza & Mexican burritos they are allowed to eat, because it is filling,.. & were brought up after the age of two years old to just eat something. hense obesity.
    It is becoming the scourge of America.
    You can also put the blame on the schools.
    Thanks for all of the afore mentioned comments, & educated facts.

    • George said:

      Dear Iris:

      Thank you for your informative as well as interesting response. In my childhood we had a fairly strict meal approach, but seasonally there were variations, and holidays were feasts—but not to excess. However, as many experts have said, today families eat “feast-like” meals regularly, perhaps as often as several meals per week. Like mileage on a car, food like this will wear you out from a caloric standpoint. As with you, treats were rare, and we were never allowed to beg for them. That sort of behavior was greatly frowned upon and, I believe, rightly so. Begging is not a useful habit.

      As I tried to emphasize, parents lead by example. Public schools are structurally under local control (except for the teachers’ unions) and—without parental activism—are challenged with kids who increasingly feel that they have “rights”. As in right to question authority, act out, misbehave and generally stuff their faces. Except for the athletes and eating disorder afflicted girls, many teenagers are, indeed, becoming somewhat obese, and some greatly so. In my day, obesity existed very rarely and was typically related to an organic condition or disease.
      Otherwise, zero obesity. There were a few “fat” kids, but very few. We walked everywhere, rode bikes endlessly on weekends, and had physical education classes every school day. A ride in a car was a very special event. Also, these classes became especially active for several years of grade school and junior high as a result of JFK’s “President’s Council On Physical Fitness”. (He would be horrified today.) I remember vividly the rope climbs, since it was a bit scary at first. Every 7th grade boy had to climb a thick cable rope all the way to the high ceiling of the gym and back down, every day. I’m not sure that happens anymore.

      Thanks again.

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