I finally figured it out.
All the talk about childhood obesity has always discomfited me, and I couldn't figure out why. I was a fat kid. I grew up to be a fat adult. While I've had temporary successes fighting my food issues, I will probably always be obese and certainly will always be overweight by medical standards. So I wrote off my unease about all the childhood obesity talk to my own unhappiness about my own situation.
But today I figured it out.
In my role as a Girl Scout leader, I was invited to participate in a summit on childhood obesity. There will be a screening of a film called "The Fat Boy Chronicles" and discussion with the filmmakers, and break out sessions with experts and all kinds of great stuff. As I was reading through the press materials, trying to discern if this was going to be worth my time to attend, it hit me.
Obese children are not the problem.
Let me repeat that. Obese children are NOT the problem.
Sure, we have more children than ever these days who are overweight and obese. The cost in both health care costs and mental-health issues is tremendous, with long-reaching implications for these kids as they grow through adolescence into adulthood. But the fact that these children are fat is NOT THE PROBLEM.
Fat children are the SYMPTOM. They are the swollen ankle telling us there's an injury inside. But all the talk about childhood obesity is centering on making the SYMPTOM go away. Not on treating the problem.
The problem is complex, though, and difficult to treat.
To become overweight you must eat more than you burn. Easy enough. So where is the problem?
The problem is: kids don't move as much - before school, during school or after school. The problem is: our food industry at every turn provides incentives to eat poorly. These problems are WAY harder to fix.
There aren't safe walking routes to our schools, so the kids don't put in a half mile in the morning and half mile in the afternoon. School start times are so early they would have to walk in pitch dark anyway, something parents are not comfortable with. Schools are so obsessed with teaching reading that they've elimnated activity on many levels. 40 years ago when I was in elementary school we had gym every day, recess every day, extra time on the kickball field if the weather was nice and the teacher wanted a break. We walked to and from school - including at lunchtime as there was no cafeteria to serve us fatty chicken nuggets. After school we didn't have schedules, so we played outside. Sure one day a week there was a half hour of piano or violin, but we weren't sitting on the bench at a soccer game or watching videos in afterschool care. But despite all that, I'm still fat. Was then too.
So we can spend millions of dollars laying sidewalks and hiring crossing guards, installing bike racks and playground equipment. We could change our school hours to what is best for the kids rather than what is expedient for the grownups. We could lengthen the school day so we have time for reading and physcial activity. We could unschedule our kids and kick them out of the house to dream up their own play. Yeah, like that's going to happen.
And even if it were, there's the other side of the equation: food. We'd need to heavily regulate the food industry's advertising to kids. Demand that our fast food restaurants offer better choices. Subsidise the farmers who produce food that is healthy for us rather than that which makes us fat. Make sure that people who go to food banks get more fresh, whole foods than boxed and canned processed foods. Teach our children (and ourselves) how to cook with whole food, and make the commitment to planning and preparation that eating good food requires.
Now all these things are underway in many communities. (Thank you Jamie Oliver.) In some cases they're effective; in many cases they're short-lived, half-assed attempts so you can say you did good. Just as with our economy, it's going to take huge, large-scale commitment and investment to make enough change to have a significant impact. Anything else is just spotty bandaging. It might ameliorate the symptom for a while, but doesn't really address the problems.
But the messages I'm hearing (and I'm sure obese children are hearing) is that they are the problem. The fact that they are fat is a problem. Now how on earth is that helpful?
The problem is our food system is broken. We've let large, corporate interests tell us what we want to eat, sell us more food than is reasonable and convince us we want it that way, and our government has colluded with subsidies, tax incentives and de-regulation.
The problem is we're more interested in what's easier for us than what's good for kids. We'd rather drop them off so they have 15 minutes more in the morning. We'd rather take them to soccer practice than worry about them playing unattended in the yard. We'd rather keep them in school only 6-7 hours daily rather than provide a full-day program. We've saved money by not putting in sidewalks, by not having crossing lights at intersections, and by not adding bike lanes so our children can travel safely.
But instead of doing the hard work, we're blaming the victim. Telling them it's their fault they don't "move more". Telling them to make better food choices. Come ON - a slice of pizza or the pale limp stuff they call lettuce on the salad bar? A video game designed to keep them playing or an empty yard/ street/ neighborhood? As if they don't feel bad enough about being fat, we're going to put the onus on THEM to do something about it?
So I'm not going to the summit. I'm not going to sit in a break out group and listen to people come up with the ideas for the victims to cure themselves. What I am going to do is what I've been doing for years now: trying hard to provide good, healthy food for my family, trying to find ways to entice all of us to get up and outdoors more, and pestering my elected representatives to put the power and weight of the government behind what is right. Talking to the city council about adding crossing guards in more places. Writing my congressman about farm subsidies. Volunteering with local organizations that help provide farmers markets at convenient times and places.
And now I have one more thing to work on: reminding kids that they are NOT the problem. We are the problem and we have failed them. Massively. And for that we should apologize and get busy fixing stuff. And no more talk about childhood obesity. No matter how many times you hold that swollen ankle up to the other one, it's not going to get better until you figure out what's causing the swelling and fix it. It's just going to make you feel bad that you have a swollen ankle.
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