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1. Ideas for Schools
We heard about extraordinary nutritional overhauls going on in the schools of Texas, a state with a very high obesity rate, and those changes reflect the effort of one government official: state agricultural commissioner Susan Combs. She has shown what strong government leadership can do.
We heard about the inspiring Edible Schoolyard program that Alice Waters has created at a middle school in Berkeley, CA. Her cross-curricular program of planting and reaping, cooking and serving can change a child's relationship with food in a profound almost spiritual way. It teaches kids to love quality over quantity, and we need to see more like that.
We heard about some valuable federal efforts in schools. Here are two:
From Eric Bost, of the Department of Agriculture, we heard of an initiative before Congress to designate "healthy schools" based on three criteria having to do with phys ed, vending machines and risk avoidance curriculum. The criteria seem a bit squishy having "some level of physical activity" was the phys ed goal but he did mention the key step of offering schools financial incentives for schools. This is something we need to do. From Tom Stenzel of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, we heard about a Department of Agriculture pilot program that gives free fruits and vegetables as snacks to school kids, combined with nutritional lessons. Right now only four states are participating, but there's a push to expand it to eight states and, hopefully, more in the future.
We heard a lot of good ideas about teaching kids about nutrition. But perhaps the most striking and unforgettable lesson we can offer kids is something like the presentation we had from Dr. Mehmet Oz, showing us what organs like the liver look like after years of bad nutrition and obesity. How about a national effort to bring this kind of hands-on lesson into elementary school classrooms? Our student reporters from TIME For Kids confirm that this lesson has the kind of gross-out cool that makes an impression.
One more thought on schools: Given the current direction of education and the pressures to perform on academic tests and teach to tests, there is a clear need for more research exploring the connection between fitness and academic performance. This is an actionable idea for our generous host, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to act on.
We have seen leadership from the Ruby Tuesday chain of restaurants in offering detailed dietary information right on the menu. Now they are reaching out with a new, healthier kids menu. We need more of that. We've seen McDonald's respond to health concerns with new salad offerings and, we just learned, some changes to their kids' menus, such as apple slices for dessert.
We've had interesting suggestions from the floor:
A price break at fast-food restaurants for small portions, and a re-examination of the use of popular cartoon characters to sell junk food. Nickelodeon deserves praise and encouragement for exploring this.
We heard about the CDC's efforts to become a model workplace, improving stairways, for instance, and creating psychological incentives to walk. We did not, however, hear of any financial incentives for companies to make these kind of changes. How about a break on medical insurance costs?
Speaking of the Health Insurance Industry
We heard about a promising new pilot program from Aetna called Healthy Body, Healthy Weight, that breaks new ground in helping overweight patients and reimbursing primary care doctors for time spent on this. We heard suggestions to build financial incentives into our health insurance systems so that companies and individuals reap benefits from changing to a healthier lifestyle, diet and weight. How about a pilot program on that?
We could not fail to be inspired by Majora Carter's efforts to bring green space for exercise to the South Bronx. Or by Lance Morgan's efforts to create an "active living" community for his fellow Winnebago tribe members, so many of whom die young from obesity. We need more ideas like these to bring solutions to minority communities, where obesity rates are sky-high and poverty is an obstacle to healthy eating. We also heard ideas for using more funds from the Transportation Bill for paths for walking and biking.
What will it take to build on these ideas such as these, to extend brilliant local and pilot programs to more people? Alice Waters' one-word answer to this question struck me as the most honest: Money. And that's where the grassroots pressure comes in. The food industry will go where its customers lead them. Government ultimately has to heed the voters. "A million mad moms" is a phrase that echoes in my ears. There is a role for the media my colleagues, those at ABC, and elsewhere to educate moms and dads. Perhaps if we stop playing up the dietary confusion message and emphasize what works in fighting obesity, more folks will get mad, understand what's at stake, and demand the kind of programs and changes we've heard about at this conference. Then we can finally reach and pass the "tipping point" on obesity.