Thoughts on the Obesity Crisis from a Working Mom

 FYI: This is not real food

A recent NYT article spoke to the seriousness of the "obesity crisis" by showing the CEOs of all the major pre-prepared, packaged/snack food companies in America meeting to discuss the issue, and in a public show at least, demonstrate they are willing to work together to develop solutions.


This conclave of food scientists is examining the issue from the perspective of re-engineering the foods they sell - originally designed to make people eat as much as possible, by enhancing fat to salt ratios, "mouth feel" and other aspects of snack foods - to manipulate eaters into eating enough (to buy the product and keep sales steady) but not so much as to make themselves sick. This is tackling the problem from the wrong direction.

The problem is multi-fold, and won't be solved until several key aspects of the way Americans now live are addressed. It is not as simple as telling people to eat less, exercise more, or mandating schools to stop selling junk food and replace soda with milk.

When I was a kid, my stay-at-home mom cooked from scratch- every day. We never ate out. My mom hated to cook and she cooked only a few dishes over and over- but everything that we ate was made from simple, identifiable ingredients. Chicken and beef, vegetables, bread, milk, eggs. My mom loved sweets and we always had a home made cake or pie for dessert. But we also were expected - in fact, forced, for my mother wanted a quiet peaceful home - to play outside. Two hours or more after school, every day. All day long during summers and weekends-sun up to sun down. We rode bikes, walked over to a friend's house and jumped on their trampoline or swam in their pool. We played "kick-the-can" with other kids in the neighborhood. Jumped rope, played hopscotch, roller skated. Even when my childhood friends and I were only 2-3 years old, we rode tricycles round and round the driveway.  There were no buses or moms driving us to school - we walked or rode our bikes.(I walked 2 blocks each way as a 6 year old, 4 blocks each way as a 12 year old, and 10 blocks each way as a 16 year old.) There were sidewalks everywhere and as a kid, you could safely get around town or play on them. In elementary school, we had two recesses with outdoor playground time a day , for 30 minutes each. (The teachers took turns supervising, and used this time as their conference/paper grading time.) We pushed ourselves on a merry-go-round, rode swings, climbed on monkey bars. In jr high and high school, P.E. was mandatory, and focused on learning different sports and leisure activities. You could choose to sign up for dancing ( aerobic, classical/jazz, country), tennis, softball, gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, golf, archery, etc. The school cafeterias of  my childhood sold actual food: Monday was spaghetti, Tuesday was tacos, Wednesday was chicken fried steak, Thursday was fried chicken, Friday was fish sticks. Every meal came with salad, 2 veggies, and unsugared ice tea. The cafeteria ladies wouldn't let you buy an ice cream unless you cleaned your plate. My high school also had a 20 minute break after first block, and sold breakfast . I'm not saying it was perfect- they also sold cigarettes in the vending machines, the breakfast break was also a smoker's break. It was the 60's, man.

Contrast this with how many Americans live today. Both parents work long work days out of financial necessity. Moms or dads come home late in the evening, tired and frazzled, and grab what they can to feed their families. Sometimes it is fast food from a drive-through, sometimes it is convenience food already prepared from the grocery store or restaurant. Always high in salt, sugar, fat, and preservatives- rarely fresh, simple ingredients. No veggies, nothing fresh. Middle class families often chauffeur their kids to activities after school- dance class, scouts, sports, etc - and grab something to eat on the go. In theory, this sounds like an even exchange ( in terms of calories in , calories out - the kids are in sports, right?) until you realize that this 45 minute activity once or twice a week is the only physical activity the child does at all, in their whole life. The schools my children attended have cut recess down to only once a day for elementary grades, and many days not even that. (All that mandated testing takes up time, and the school days are now longer as a result. ) Kids routinely ride the bus to and from school instead of walking bc mom and dad are working. Little children are placed in "after care" activities until a parent can get off work to pick them up, and they spend those 2 hours every day watching tv, doing crafts, or playing indoors. High school students are only required to take 1 year of P.E., and the P.E. classes at the school where I work consist of students being told to walk circles around the gym while the coach plays on his cellphone or laptop. You can walk by any time of the day and see half the students sitting down, talking, and the coach ignores them.  That's their P.E. exposure. The food sold at the cafeteria is the same meal, 5 days a week: pizza or chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, french fries, and a roll. Everything is covered in "gravy". It is all carbs, grease, salt, and beige. The cafeteria ladies don't even cook it - it comes pre-assembled in boxes and they just heat it up. I am not sure how this meal meets RDA requirements, or why it is deemed better than a sandwich and a piece of fruit. (Sidebar: I tried to convince my school to build a community garden- make it a class, let AG run it - to add to the cafeteria meals. No go.) Laws intending to cut out candy and junk food sold at the school are easily circumvented- my school has a "school store" (closed when the inspector comes around) that is located away from the cafeteria, open before and after school, that sells soda, candy, chips and other crap . It is located right where the students come off the bus and enter the building, and every morning the line is long as students load up on the snacks they want to eat all day - often using up all their lunch money here. After eating sugar and salt all day, they will come to class all hyped up, or else cranky and hungry, and ask if I have anything for them to eat. I routinely keep peanut butter and crackers to feed them. Even the "home ec" class taught at my school - now renamed "food science" , spends 90% of its time having students doing book work on nutrition and only 10% or less teaching them how to cook and plan healthy meals.

In my community, many poor families go hungry. Interestingly, their daily meals are healthier than wealthier folks' bc they can't afford to buy junk food, so they eat staples : beans, rice, vegetables, with a little bit of meat. Junk food is a treat not a daily item. It is a common phenomenon in  my town to see tremendously overweight white people and normal weight Hispanics.

The solution to our obesity crisis ( for both kids and adults) is to conscientiously and drastically change many aspects of our lives and how we live them. I am not saying moms need to give up careers and be stay -at -home moms cooking from scratch and supervising kids playing in the back yard...I am a working mother myself, out of necessity, and I fall victim to all these same scenarios. I do know that if someone in my neighborhood offered simple, made-from scratch meals - even the wretched 1960's style casseroles my mother cooked- at a reasonable price, and all I had to do was drive through, pick it up, go home and stick it in the oven  and serve with a bag of salad- I would do it, and pay a pretty price, too. Sure there are purveyors of frozen lasagnas and the like, but these are high in salt and other things that are not good to eat in excess. A great business opportunity awaits someone who can figure out how to do that; even better if organic. McD's and other fast food restaurants have paid attention to this trend and developed alternatives, but feeding your child packaged ( bathed in preservatives) apple slices with his chicken nuggets isn't enough. Schools need to bring back P.E., real food, and design after-care programs that let kids physically play outdoors. Cities need to build sidewalks, parks, rec centers, playgrounds.

Fascinating TEDx talk on the important connection between excercise and learning:

It feels as if every year we Americans work longer and longer hours at our jobs, at computers, sitting down. We have long commutes - in cars, sitting down - to and from work. We come home late, tired, and watch tv or surf the internet- sitting down. It is no wonder we are starting to develop the pear shaped bodies seen in the movie "Wall-E". (People often say to me, "You are a teacher, you have a short work day and summers off !." No I do not. I work 8-5 every day, and longer on several days a week. I work through lunch ("other duties as assigned"),  rarely have time to go the the restroom, routinely lose all my conference time to meetings, frequently have more meetings that run early or late before/after the school day, and am expected to give up several weeks each summer for "training". I bring home grading, read/write/work hours a week for lesson planning/development,  and recently am expected to complete several days-20+ hours- of online training, each school year, on my own time : nights and weekends.) As a society, we need to spend less time in front of computers (then shopping or eating junk food to alleviate our stress from working) and more time doing things/interacting with our co-workers, families, friends, and our bodies. We need to have movement breaks throughout the day so we can get up, walk around, use our muscles. As humans, we are hard-wired to eat as much as possible in case there is a famine, but we can also find substitutions to what we are currently eating that give us pleasure and are still good for us.

Another NYT article on healthy eating, living, and longevity

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