Last month, my car insurance company left me a voice mail reminding me that the three-year discount from the safe-driving course I had taken was about to expire. I zipped over to the local AAA branch to take the next all-day-Saturday version of the course, sat through the videos and Q and A’s, and mailed in my certificate.
Like discounted insurance for safe drivers, first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” programs could ultimately encourage healthy eating at the farm and factory level as well as within the family. That way, eating plans and exercise would be supported by the food supply chain. Childhood obesity can’t be cured just by self-reliance. However, taking a look at primary causes might yield focused problem-solving that lasts longer and has more impact.
A nod in this direction came from the “Let’s Move” campaign itself. At a meeting with state governors, Mrs. Obama encouraged civic support in the form of school playing fields open after-hours for community use, and sidewalks to encourage walking as part of new road construction.
On a local, state, and national level, the campaign can encourage change by telling success stories that help consumers rethink individual family economies. Michael Pollard’s newest book, “Food Rules,” for example, projects that a $70 investment in a backyard vegetable garden yields $600 in produce, a potential savings of $530 a year.
When family finances are an issue, this is not inconsequential, especially when considered in light of individualized opportunities:
- $530 a year can provide tuition for a parent to take a community college course. In the Buffalo, New York, area, a credit hour at Erie Community College costs $138, making a three-credit course a bargain at $414 with money for the textbook left over.
- The savings could create a family piggy-bank of $50 of gasoline money per month for a jaunt together. One-tank trips have made it into the newspaper travel pages. Or families could plan their own longer trips every few months, figuring out how many miles they get to the gallon, drawing a circle on a map around their city and looking inside the circle for fun destinations.
- $530 that a family doesn’t have to spend on food can translate into $100 every other month for clothing for a small child.
Besides these scenarios of financial incentives for families — augmented by those of actual families who find other ways to “pay themselves first” — consumers can inform themselves. Important initial causes may sometimes be invisible, but they can be revealed through a little research. Of course, it turns out that whatever sits on the kitchen counter starts at the farm where the produce and animals were raised and the factories where food in cans and boxes is processed.
Although these sources are literally farther afield, knowing about them can help consumers better understand obesity issues. For instance, in his book, “ANTI-CANCER: A New Way of Life,” David Servan-Schreiber MD, Ph.D observes that the environment can provide healthier nutrition. Cattle that eat spring grasses yield meat high in healthy omega-3s.
These, he says, regulate three important factors — inflammation, blood fluidity, and cell growth. But omega-6s, which saturate the meat from cattle fed on corn and soy, are associated with inflammation, clotting, and cell growth.
Programs that encourage farms and factories to take such considerations into account and recognize that we are what we eat and we eat what our food has “eaten” are a first step.
In his earlier book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan reminds the reader that, historically, cooking rendered more kinds of food digestible. That’s why cooking freed up time and human energy that would have been spent searching for food that was edible raw. The result: more time and energy for pursuits like dance, music, and sports, for instance, that eventually would become part of every culture.
Programs about food aren’t really just about food, just as programs about heart health, drug prevention, or crime reduction aren’t really just about these either. They are all, at base, quality of life issues. That’s why nutrition education also impacts other lifestyle areas that translate into “living better.”
Relationships and networking that consumers create around nutrition – for example, by taking gardening courses or participating in community farmers’ markets or community-use spaces known as CSAs – can lead to changes in other areas: scholarships for their kids; after-school arts lessons in the neighborhood; the already-existing bike-rental and T’ai Chi in the park programs.
These in turn bring community members into regular contact with those whose experience in these areas can offer both information and friendship. The garden at the White House is a model that shows people doing what they advise others to do, and inviting them in for a hands-on look.
The campaign is right in organizing community projects that have the potential to get people up and moving, instead of sitting and watching. Involvement inspires hope and builds a sense of self. So community projects offer a locus for tangible change and an avenue to move that change positively into other areas of life.
As these possibilities are articulated in a series of publicized strategies that include incentivizing farms and factories as well as families, then the nation will have a better idea of where we are “moving” and how we will know when we have gotten there. We will be able to measure change in more than the Body Mass Index.
The “Let’s Move” campaign has a realistic world view: You have to start from where you are. And to work smarter and not just harder, strategies that get involved in farm and factory production can maximize the results of the grit and determination of ordinary citizens. We all eat food. None of us want to be obese. Society as a whole can creatively support that goal, as the “Let’s Move” campaign suggests. Consumers of food shouldn’t have to stop the speeding truck of the childhood obesity epidemic by eating plans and exercise alone.