I had scheduled an interview to speak with the upbeat 10 year old and her mother, Rebecca, the week before. Interviews in public places always go the same way. You make knowing eye contact, get the nod that, in fact, this is who you came to meet and walk over to introduce yourself. But it didn’t happen that way this time. The minute I saw Stella, I knew it was her. With short brown hair tucked behind her ears and an olive complexion, at 4-foot-8, Stella is average for her age, but she is slightly overweight.
“Last summer, Stella had had some fluctuations in her weight,” Rebecca said while sipping iced coffee. “We went to the doctor and he wanted her to see an endocrinologist and a dietician. We did that and discovered that she was becoming insulin resistant.”
Much in the same way Stella opens her hands, revealing her eyes as she plays peek-a-boo with her baby sister, insulin works to open the doors of the cells. The hormone then transfers sugar from the blood into those cells for energy. When you’re insulin resistant, your cells aren’t opening their doors adequately, causing blood sugar levels to rise. The diagnosis is often followed by type 2 diabetes—a truth that would join Stella with a growing statistic.
The Center for Disease Control recently said that one out of three children today will have diabetes by 2050. Those same children make up the first generation in our country’s history expected to die at a younger age than their parents. Childhood obesity is a national epidemic.
On stage at a TED talk in Huntington, West Virginia, renowned chef Jamie Oliver lifts a wheelbarrow and dumps its contents onto the floor. A cloud of white resin rises in the air. The powdery mass is caused by clumps of sugar, representing what a child consumes in five years of elementary school from chocolate milk. “I don’t know about you guys,” Oliver says, sugar sifting through his hands. “But judging the circumstances, any judge in the whole world would look at the statistics and the evidence and they would find any government of old guilty of child abuse. That’s my belief.” Studies support his claim.
People who consume one-to-two sugary drinks a day have a 26 percent greater risk for type 2 diabetes. It’s why Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) did away with chocolate milk. On their website, BVSD explains that “children choosing chocolate milk for lunch on a daily basis…could potentially consume an extra 11-19 cups of sugar,“ translating into a weight gain of two to five pounds.
But sugary drinks alone are not the reason we’re in the mess we’re in. No one knows that better than Ann Cooper, the “Renegade Lunch Lady” who’s an ally of Oliver’s in his fight against childhood obesity. She’s also the person behind the changes to Boulder Valley’s lunch program. Photographs of Cooper and Michelle Obama look onto the chef typing at her computer. On the opposite wall, a white board is mapped out with the week’s menu—penne pasta, tamales, cheese ravioli. Taking time away to talk, she begins by saying how this all happened.
“It really came out of WWII,” she said, “when we got the onset of better living through chemicals. Whether it was TV dinners, which came out of MRIs, chemical agriculture or refrigeration—we really started at that point being fascinated with fast food. Fast food and processed food and quick food. That’s lead to one or two generations not knowing how to cook.”
As a result, some children can’t identify basic fruits and vegetables. Cooper tells of students who don’t know that carrots grow in the ground or strawberries, on vines. With pesticides and fertilizers (chemicals developed for war and used for peacetime surplus), farms have been transformed into factories, and growing portion sizes have not been supplemented with more physical activity. Children today are at increased risk for preventable medical problems—many of which are associated with mortality. Childhood obesity also has psychosocial consequences, such as lower quality of life and self-esteem.
“Stella was bullied at her school,” Rebecca said with a sour smile. “The kids called her hippo. I mean, nasty stuff.”
Crumbs trail from a piece of half-eaten banana bread on the coffee table separating me and Rebecca. Stella asks her mother if she can have the rest. “No,” Rebecca says calmly. “We’re taking it home for your sister.”
At home, Stella’s father cooks the meals for the family of five, but outside of home, research says that 50 percent of a child’s calories are consumed in school during the school year.
“That’s why it’s the culmination of my career,” says Cooper, reflecting on the youths she’s tasked with feeding. Her experience as a chef and author of Bitter Harvest, about how food can make us sick, readied her for the day she was offered the job as the Director of Food and Wellness at BVSD. It’s been four years since she’s taken over the program. Today, Cooper is in charge of 200 employees working out of three kitchens to serve more than 29,000 students—one of them being Stella, who like many children, opts to buy her lunch at school.
The district doesn’t serve anything with high fructose corn syrup. There are no trans fats, no chemicals, no dyes. BVSD also puts a priority on local procurement, sourcing food from Sisters’ Pantry, Colorado Tortilla Co., and Udi’s, among others.
The salad bars at BVSD were given to the school through Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Salad Bars into Schools program. It’s the most popular item on the menu, “because kids have choices,” says Cooper. In fact, due to its popularity, purchases of produce have gone up 400 percent. To cut back on cost, whenever possible the school uses vegetables fresh from their own garden.
“Our school has a garden,” Stella says, looking up from playing with her sister. “Some grades rinse, some grades pick, some grades get off all the stems. Last year we planted lettuce. When it got to the salad bar I was like, ‘Wow! We planted this. It tastes good.’”
While Stella’s visible enthusiasm is a symbol of the program’s success, Cooper says there’s one area where most programs fall short. “It’s really important,” she said, “to get the parents involved.”
When the government wanted people to stop smoking, they didn’t market to parents: They marketed to their children. The same is true for when the government wanted people to start wearing seat belts. Kids are impressionable and they bring home what they learn. But kids can’t cook. They can’t drive. They can’t do the grocery shopping.
When the government wanted people to stop smoking, they didn’t market to parents: They marketed to their children.
Getting the parents involved is the mission of a class given at the YMCA of Boulder Valley where instructor Evelyn Vélez-Aguayo asks a question in Spanish about food and nutrition: “Is more always better?”
Yodalia Castillo, a mother and the most outspoken of the group, offers her opinion: “Cheaper” she chides, and the room fills with knowing laughter.
The class is called MEND—Mind, Excercise, Nutrition, Do It!—a free program offered at YMCAs nationwide that meets for two hours twice weekly for two months to help overweight children and their parents implement healthy eating and activity into their lives. It’s how I first learned of Stella. She completed the course a year ago with her mother.
“I was amazed at how comprehensive the program is,” Rebecca said. “How well thought out it is; how effective it is.”
Most of the children attending MEND were referred by their pediatricians. All are overweight, and all must attend with a parent or caretaker. While weight is the issue, it’s not the topic of conversation. As Vélez-Aguayo passes out cups marked by measuring units, the students call out answers about portion size. Parents and children are instructed about nutrition together, then the kids go off to physical activity while the adults share the stories of their struggles.
The women in today’s class trade tales of how to get their kids to eat asparagus, how to shop at the grocery store and how they overcome the guilt associated with having an overweight child. They laugh at how the kids actually police the parents while shopping for groceries. By incorporating the parents into the program along with their children, MEND seems to be working. At least it did for Stella.
“Now I know how food affects my body,” says Stella. “And how, if I have two carbs, I’ll get really, really tired.”
Stella isn’t the only one learning. The Center for Disease Control recently released a report showing slight drops in obesity for low-income preschoolers in 18 states. Although small, these are signs of growing progress.
“I think it’s like any other education,” Cooper said. “Food education should be taught. What we really need to do is talk to kids about what a really good balanced diet is. There’s everyday food and special occasion food.”
It seems like common sense, but it’s not to kids who don’t know carrots grow in the ground, who have junk food marketed to them on TV and then reinforced in their lunch lines, who are insulin resistant at age 9.
But not at age 10.
While Stella has increased in height, she hasn’t gained any more weight. What she has gained, however, is the knowledge that in order to stay healthy, her body needs proper nourishment—and that’s a word Stella has learned is synonymous with food.