July 21, 2012

A Greener Approach to Urban Obesity. ~ Ann Halsig


Just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

“They’re rescue iguanas,” Rhonda said as we looked into her massive terrarium.

Rhonda had lived down the street from me for years, but we’d only just started hanging out. We had loads in common, but our strongest bond was our love of animals.

“Their owners fed them crickets. Because it’s easier. But they’re not supposed to have that much protein.”

The two iguanas had gotten their color back in force and were full of life. The only remaining sign of the neglect was that one had lost his jaw. Aptly named ’Nocchio (as in, short for Pinocchio), the copious amounts of protein he’d ingested at the hands of his lazy previous owner, coupled with a diet devoid of calcium, had broken down the fragile cartilage in his jaw, and there it went.

Many years later, living in the Philippines, a neighbor called me downstairs.

“Ayo! Come see this, Ann!”

As I came outside, she didn’t hesitate for a second to plop a weeks-old kitten into my hands.

My. Heart. Melted.

She disappeared into the house, returning with the tiniest little bowl of milk, which she placed in my other hand.

Earthquake, as he would later be named, owing to the earthquake that preceded his arrival, lapped it up greedily. Cow’s milk.

While this isn’t surprising in the least—everybody knows cats love milk—it should be. Cats are, by and large, lactose intolerant. And why shouldn’t they be?

That’s the formula intended for an 80 pound infant with four individual digestive compartments. Not kittens.

I relay these two anecdotes because I think we need to be honest about what we—and more importantly, children—are faced with when it comes to dietary decisions.

’Nocchio ostensibly wasn’t a meat-eater, but he ate those crickets. Earthquake ostensibly wasn’t a calf, but he drank that milk. To be fair, neither animal had much of a choice. ’Nocchio was penned up in a terrarium. Earthquake was literally starving to death when he found us. But many well-fed cats will drink milk if it’s offered to them…because it tastes good.

As humans, we’ve got more than few more obstacles to overcome in the world of food.

1. Lack of time.

Let’s say you’re the parent of two kids—one in elementary and the other in junior high school. You have a full-time job, and the drive to work takes you 30 minutes. Both kids need rides to school in the morning to start at 8:30, while you start work at 9:00. Let’s say you’re lucky enough for them to get a ride home with your partner, and you’re lucky enough to work a 40-hour workweek. Hard enough to find time to shop weekly for whole foods, not to mention prepare three meals a day, but you make it work.

Now let’s say you’re a single parent. You have two part-time jobs on opposite ends of town. You’ve got three kids—one in preschool, one in elementary, and one in junior high, all who need rides to school. This is a juggling act that warrants respect and admiration…can one be blamed for relying on take-out and frozen pizzas a few times a week?

2. Food deserts.

Food deserts are, by definition, areas in the developed world where healthy food is difficult at best to get your hands on. Miles from a grocery store, poor or nonexistent public transport, and many or most can’t afford a car. Bet you can find a McDonald’s though.

They’re popping up everywhere. You want to see something scary? Check out the USDA’s Food Desert Locater Map here.

What if you’re the single parent in the second scenario above, and you live in a food desert?

3. Media.

There’s no denying that we—and our children—are faced with the media’s unrelenting efforts to garner our attention. Even if we swore all of it off—TV, films, the Internet—it would miss the point. We can—and should absolutely be able to monitor our own intake of media. Even if we did go without, we’d still be bombarded by the billboards. We’d still know the jingles.

Still—and again, this is particularly true for kids—images of processed, fast foods are everywhere, and they’re constant. This is what food looks like, they say, and for kids in socioeconomically disadvantaged food deserts, it’s all that’s on offer.

4. Food as drug.

Three ingredients: sugar, salt, fat. This was well-documented in the seminal 2004 film Supersize Me, but it can be seen everywhere—even in foods that aren’t “bad” in moderation. Want to nail that homemade chocolate chip cookie recipe? Add a teensy bit more salt. Pineapple on your pizza, anybody?

But the baddies have this magical formula down-pat. And they’ve added a substantial serving of refined carbohydrates to the mix. The less “whole” a food is, the less it fills us up for the longer term. This isn’t rocket science—even if we feel full after a meal of sugar-salt-fat-refined carbs, our bodies aren’t satisfied. The combination of no nutrients and no fiber will have us eating more, sooner.

This writer realizes that everybody’s responsible for the things they put in their mouths (although children might arguably be left out of that equation), but I also see a world in which making healthy choices about food seems increasingly impossible.

Photo: © Wolfberry

It used to be generally acceptable for overweight people to have any number of judgments laid upon them, but the United States is now fully a third obese. Fewer and fewer fingers have any business doing the pointing.

So what’s to be done? A lot. So much, it’s hard to know where to start, but I’d proffer that the best place would be Detroit, Michigan.

Most U.S. Americans paying any attention know the story: Big auto business left Detroit and took thousands of jobs along with it. Those who could move out and start over did; many could not. As unemployment skyrocketed, consumption plummeted, and as the years passed, ever more empty storefronts dotted the neglected landscape. But the story didn’t end there. Detroit’s citizens took matters into their own hands, and at the heart of the takeover were concentrated community efforts to implement urban agriculture programs. It’s been covered everywhere from CNN to The Huffington Post.

Maybe I’ve got tunnel vision, but my experience of urban agriculture has been that it tackles every single one of the problems I’ve mentioned.

Here’s how:

1. Lack of time.

Work in many community gardens is split between people. Major organizers can even make a livelihood out of the garden, particularly if enough food is being grown to sell. This doesn’t have to be heavy labor—it’s vegetable gardening, and that can range from small plots of land to complex enterprises. Yes, hands get dirty, but kids like that, and are often keen to get involved. That’s a lot of weeding and watering the grown-ups don’t have to do alone!

2. Food deserts.

This one sort of speaks for itself—urban food deserts are prime real estate for urban vegetable gardens. It isn’t free, but in the longer term, the cost of tools, soil and raised beds is far less than the health costs associated with poor eating, or even the cost of those processed foods alone!

3. Media.

At the risk of stating the obvious, what better way to get away from the constant drone of the media than donning a pair of gloves and digging in the dirt? Not to mention, a bit of re-education is in order, after all the afore-mentioned drivel the corporations have shoved down our throats: No, this is what food looks like, thank you very much.

4. Food as drug.

Anyone I’ve ever met, no matter their age, nationality, gender or faith, who has grown their own food knows the magic it brings to the plate. Whether you love her or hate her, this is a big part of what Mrs. Obama’s all about, and I think she’s onto something. Reconnecting to whole foods means one must at least consider the origins of whatever one eats, and that’s a great starting place, indeed.

Perhaps it’s oversimplified, but big problems often have simple—if at once also difficult—solutions.

Detroit is by no means alone: my partner has worked in urban agriculture programs from the U.K. to the Philippines, and new programs are popping up around the world.

The way the U.S. is eating is unsustainable on many, many levels, and a painfully visible manifestation of this is widespread obesity. If it ever was, this is no longer a personal problem affecting the few. It deserves a community solution empowering the masses.


Ann Halsig is a freelance writer with a background in Social Science and Ethnic Studies. She has lived and worked in the U.S., England, the Philippines and currently resides in France.  You can check out her musings, meanderings and misadventures on her blog or hire her for some word whittling here.


Editor:  April Dawn Ricchuito

Like elephant health & wellness on Facebook.



Read 9 Comments and Reply

Read 9 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490