How do we change our community’s eating habits?
The month of March has been designated National Health and Nutrition Month by the American Dietetics Association. The theme this year is “Eat Smart, Stay Healthy.” The campaign reinforces the importance of nutrition as a key component of health, along with physical activity. The main tenants for a healthy lifestyle include: exercise (even moderate, like walking instead of taking the elevator), variety in foods, and basically thinking about eating on a long-term basis rather than concentrating on meal by meal. Make moderation your goal; you decide how much and how often. Healthy eating does not mean feeling deprived or guilty. Look at the big picture: It’s what you eat over several days – not just one day or one meal.
As an organization we, Project MANA, have been focusing on our goals and priorities for 2004. In addition to maintaining and working on improvements for our current programs, two issues in particular have surfaced over the last year, the obesity epidemic and childhood nutrition. We feel both are related, and as a food provider promoting nutrition, something we want to take a more active role in. We can’t tell our clients what to eat, but we can do our part to combat the obesity epidemic by promoting good nutrition. We can also limit the amount of fatty foods given out at our distributions and make sure we consistently provide fresh produce, whole grains and dairy products.
Recently, we have been researching different ways to advocate for childhood nutrition. One of the things that keeps coming up for me (and I risk dating myself) is a cartoon. “Popeye” was my favorite television show as a kid, and I watched it every day. It is a typical bad guy (Brutus the heavy) who steals the girl (Olive Oil) and the underdog hero, Popeye, who rescues her. Now Brutus is three times the strength and size of our hero, and Popeye can only succeed after eating a can of spinach, which magically makes him 10 times stronger. He then proceeds to wail on Brutus, who runs off into the sunset to recover in time for the next episode.
There is a message here and it implies that good nutrition makes you stronger. True, fresh spinach is better than canned and more available these days, and Olive Oil is better on your salad than in your arms. But my point is that despite our best intentions and artistic pretensions, we do not have much for kids today that promotes good nutrition. In fact, we are barraged by commercials and advertisements that do just the opposite.
Popeye had an effect on me, making me aware – despite being surrounded by unaware adults – of nutrition and the importance of eating right. I am not sure how this cartoon was created or even if there was an intentional nutritional message in mind. Maybe it was a food industry with too much canned spinach on its hands. Or, maybe it was created by a government coming out of World War II that saw first hand the effects of malnutrition in our country. This is about the same time that the school lunch program was created “in the interest of national security” because so many of our citizens were failing their war time physicals due to malnutrition.
Now that science has caught up with us and is beginning to affirm that yes, good nutrition does play a key role in how are minds and bodies develop. We are seeing a surge in “health consciousness” and health food stores are making a big come back.
But what about the school lunch that was created to prevent malnutrition? What about our children? What are they eating? I know as a parent I have experienced the difficulties of getting my children to eat right. Each morning, as I send them off to school, I find myself reluctantly relinquishing my power over what they will have for lunch, rationalizing that the school lunch will provide a healthy choice and they will, of course, choose that (please, don’t eat the curly fries). But, deep down I know what they will really go for, and I do believe in the freedom of choice.
How do we advocate for healthier food choices for school lunch and nutrition breaks without making the food providers feel like they are under attack? How do we get our children to make that choice? How do we get children to stop coming to school with a candy bar or bag of chips for breakfast? Education and being an example to our children is a start. This is an area where we feel we can make a difference through our nutrition education program in the elementary schools. Being an example is recognizing that we are role models for our children. Health consciousness and choosing to eat healthier foods is a lifestyle, not a diet.
George LeBard is executive director of Project MANA. For more information about Project MANA or its programs, call (775) 298-0008.