Minding Our Peas and Cukes

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Written by Jane Quinn, Originally published in Youth Today Newspaper

Several years ago, when foundations and policymakers discovered the obesity crisis in our country – seemingly overnight – I thought we were witnessing just another fad. I mean, hadn’t we all been aware for quite a while that a lot of people were overweight? So why the sudden alarm bells over what seemed like the status quo?

But recent research has confirmed the need for those alarm bells, and youth workers should be among the first responders.

Here’s the skinny. Yes, there is an obesity crisis in our country, and the trend lines are all pointing in the wrong direction. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, the proportion of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has more than doubled over the past decade, while the proportion of overweight adolescents ages 12 to 19 has more than tripled.

Adults show similar patterns. More than one-third of American adults qualify as overweight, compared with 23.4 percent in the 1960s. The situation with adolescents is now so serious that 40 percent of young women and 25 percent of young men weigh too much to enlist in military service. Analysts attribute this phenomenon to an array of factors, including sedentary lifestyles and regular consumption of high- calorie snack foods, fast foods and sodas.

Youth workers have many reasons and ways to help address this crisis. The major reason is that our holistic approach to youth development encompasses physical well-being, and obesity (and even being overweight) is highly correlated with a host of serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Here are some of the ways we can help:

Organizational practices: Let’s make sure the food and drinks we serve during snack- and meal-time are not contributing to young people’s weight problems. Many youth organizations in recent years have adopted clear agency policies that outline what kinds of drinks and foods can be purchased and served. At The Children’s Aid Society in New York, we adopted such a policy about three years ago and now serve only milk, fruit juice and water as drinks; and nutritious snacks, such as peanut butter, fresh fruit and vegetables. We have gotten rid of all fast-food snacks and sodas in vending machines.

Nutrition programming: Many youth organizations offer cooking classes, which seem to be increasingly popular with young people of all ages. Perhaps the Food Network is helping to build kids’ interest in the culinary arts. Well-planned cooking classes can incorporate nearly all the best practices of good enrichment programming – exposing young people to new foods, providing opportunities for hands-on experience, integrating academic practice (literacy, math, science) and offering kids a chance for authentic engagement and positive social interaction.

My colleague Anastasia Wilkerson, manager of the Food and Nutrition Program at Children’s Aid, has observed, “When kids get their hands on food, they will try new and unfamiliar things – and most of the time, they will like it.” Further, she notes, children and teens often take home what they are learning and introduce their families to unfamiliar foods and ways to prepare them.

Other nutrition-oriented programs that work well in youth organizations are gardens, youth markets and such entrepreneurship initiatives as catering companies. Many of these program efforts can be linked; young people can grow their own food, then cook and eat it, cook and sell it, or grow and sell it. Besides teaching business skills, youth markets can help young people become community advocates for “food justice” – a new concept that calls attention to an old problem, the lack of fresh produce in many low-income neighborhoods.

Fitness programming: Nutrition is only one pillar of weight control. The other is physical activity, and this plays to the strengths of many youth organizations. Many youth organizations build sports and/or fitness into their daily programming for kids of all ages, starting with the very youngest. Young people should be offered an array of traditional and nontraditional fitness opportunities so they can discover what they like and build those fitness habits into their daily lives. Staff members should try to lead by example – managing their own weight, walking instead of riding, drinking water or juice instead of soda, and actively participating in fitness activities with young people.

Speaking of leading by example, wasn’t it distressing to read that those six U.S. senators, as they were writing the health care reform plan, were snacking on chocolate-covered potato chips? If we are really going to improve health care (and health), we must all rediscover that fresh fruits and vegetables have a glory of their own and don’t need to be disguised as candy. Just ask Sasha and Malia.

Jane Quinn is Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.