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.