Seed to Plate: A real food antidote for a childhood crisis

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

When a whole society catches an illness, symptoms abound throughout. Right now our society suffers from a serious delusion about what food really is, and one harmful symptom of that – obesity – is affecting children to the extreme.

“I like applesauce. I’m a big fruit fan when it’s not fruit,” said a young boy on NBC Nightly News last month, explaining why he is a big fan of Boomerang Backpacks. The school-based program provides weekend food for kids who might otherwise go hungry. In an Indiana town, a high school teacher partnered with his students and local businesses to fill backpacks with Toaster Tarts and Fruit Flips, apple sauce and granola bars. The boy sings the praises of the program while sitting on the porch with his parents. All three are overweight, maybe obese.

With their laser-focus on the economy, NBC missed an important point: we have moved so far from our agrarian origins that it can be difficult to identify packaged food as something that once grew in the ground.

Yes, many in our country go hungry, but many more are overfed and undernourished. According to author and nutrition expert Marion Nestle, our food system produces about 3900 calories per person per day. That’s two to three times what our bodies actually need, and most of it is manufactured food. In 2006, a food marketing study by Prevention Institute found that nearly two-thirds of highly advertised children’s food products with images or references to fruit on the package actually contained little or no fruit and high amounts of sugar.

So we shouldn’t be surprised by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2008 report finding an estimated 23 million children are either overweight or obese. The health implications are serious. Along with obesity comes diseases historically associated with adulthood: coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes (formerly adult onset, the name was changed to be inclusive of children), high blood pressure, high cholesterol, certain cancers, liver and gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis and gynecological problems. Obesity also carries emotional and psychological implications including low-self esteem, social isolation and depression. Obesity can compound whatever prejudices low income or minority children may already face, because it’s more prevalent in those populations.

To make matters worse, many inner city neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores, let alone farmer’s markets, within their boundaries, making it difficult to get fresh, affordable food. Even with public transportation, the time it takes to get to the store and home again can be prohibitive, forcing people to rely on corner convenience stores and fast food restaurants that are cheap and within close proximity.

“You can’t think about community without thinking about how you get your food,” says Gretchen Kunkel, president of KC Healthy Kids. Her organization is working to unify area efforts to fight childhood obesity with an all-encompassing approach. The Greater Kansas City Healthy Food Policy Coalition includes health care professionals, farmers, educators, public officials, parents and representatives from nonprofit agencies who are dedicated to creating a regional food policy that addresses not just health issues, but hunger, access, fairness, sustainability and local food production in our region.

It’s proven that healthy kids learn better, and this generation of children will need to be well-educated, competent problem-solvers in order to continue to respond to the economic and environmental crises currently facing our nation and our world. We have not gotten them off to a good start. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and behavior disorders are standing in their way. This is the story I want NBC to tell.

I would also like NBC to tell the stories that go beyond ineffective quick fixes for systemic problems. Here in Kansas City, for instance, at least two area communities are kicking off initiatives that provide healthy fresh food, but also help kids understand where food comes from, how it serves their bodies, and why they need to take responsibility for growing some of their own food.

In the Rosedale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, 51 percent of elementary school students are overweight or obese. This week, through a partnership between the Rosedale Development Association, the Rosedale Ministerial Alliance, KC Healthy Kids and the University of Kansas Medical Center-Internal Medicine Foundation, the community launched the Rosedale Healthy Kids Initiative. This faith-based advocacy effort to reduce childhood obesity will provide community gardens, improved access to healthy foods, and after-school activities that incorporate healthy eating and active living.

On the other side of the state line, Kansas City’s Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council (INC) fights crime, gangs and drugs, litter and illegal dumping in order to create a safer, more livable community. Yet the importance of healthy food is not lost. The neighborhood’s youth are putting in an organic garden and documenting the effort on video. They will also help INC determine what kinds of fruit trees to plant on the lot come October. The trees are provided by funding from Nature Hills Nursery of Omaha, Nebraska, through local environmental agency Bridging The Gap.

“It’s another exciting opportunity for [our youth] to understand how important it is to eat well,” says Yolanda Young, INC’s youth and family outreach specialist.

Here are some things you can do to support efforts to help Kansas City’s kids be healthier:

> Join me and almost 300 others who support the Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition. This newly formed coalition is committed to promoting a sustainable regional food system for everyone within the nine-county Kansas City area which takes into account the many issues associated with our food supply. For more information, go to http://www.kchealthykids.org.

> Start a community garden. Just around the corner from an amazing gardening store is a large triangular median filled with weeds. It would serve the neighborhood better if it were growing vegetables instead. If you have garden dreams for a vacant lot or forgotten corner of your neighborhood, join Kansas City Community Gardens. Details at http://www.kccg.org

> Start a schoolyard garden. Kansas City Community Gardens provides support for food gardens in schools and employs a full-time garden expert to help schools create and care for their gardens. Details at http://www.kccg.org

> Ask for input from kids. Whether deciding what’s for dinner to how the new schoolyard will be designed, they can be great problem solvers.

> Tap into the local food system. Kansas City’s thriving local food movement offers farmers markets, community supported agriculture, you-pick orchards and berry patches, and farm field trips. For a directory, visit http://www.kcfoodcircle.org

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1 Comment »

  1. Great article. With the rush to provide “farmers markets” in every community I notice that some of these markets are nothing more than California corporate farm produce trucked in. The same produce one buys in area grocery stores. Not local in-season offerings. Just look at today’s (5-14) photo of the “farmers market” at Truman Medical Center in todays Star newspaper. I wish the media would pick up on this issue and encourage support for truly “local” produce. The grocery store produce is even sometimes more expensive through these supposed green “farmers markets.”

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