How Activists Helped Turn the Tide on Childhood Obesity

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Yael Lehmann

Childhood obesity has long been considered one of the nation’s most intractable problems, complicated by issues like race, poverty and a culture that to many seems more concerned with corporate profits than children’s health. About 17 percent of American children are obese; among low-income children, the rate rises to 20 percent. But a recent report shows that the tide may finally be turning, with childhood obesity rates declining by 3 -5 percentage points in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

The reasons for the reversal are still unclear, but it would be hard for anyone familiar with the work of Philadelphia’s Food Trust to discount the impact of that organization and others like it. We called Food Trust Executive Director Yael Lehmann to learn more about the new report and the role of activists in reversing the trend.

Lauren Feeney: Several U.S. cities saw childhood obesity rates drop for the first time in decades, with your city, Philadelphia, seeing some of the most dramatic improvement. To what do you attribute this turn-around?

Yael Lehmann: This is an extraordinary moment where we’re finally seeing these glimmers of hope. It’s hard to know what to attribute it to, but I believe it’s this comprehensive approach, combining education with access to healthy foods; policy makers and people in the trenches.

Feeney: Philadelphia, the poorest of America’s ten largest cities, saw the greatest decline in obesity among minority children. Why do you think that is?

Lehmann: In most cities, the improvement was mostly among white kids, but among minority kids you just weren’t seeing it. Philly is the only city that didn’t have those same racial disparities. We saw a seven percent decline for African-American boys and an eight percent decline for Hispanic girls.

It takes an army, you know. It takes everyone from the mayor on down. We work in every part of the city; there’s no stone left unturned. We work in the lowest income areas, the most distressed neighborhoods, in every school. I think that’s at least part of the reason why we didn’t have the same racial disparities in our results.

Feeney: How did African-American and Hispanic children end up with such high obesity rates in the first place?

Lehmann: It really goes back to the history of racism in this country. To talk specifically about Philly (though Philly’s not the only city where this was the case), there was a period of time when particular neighborhoods within the city were “redlined,” and it was impossible to get loans to open up businesses there.

There was also a point when businesses were fleeing low-income areas and moving out to the suburbs. Between 1968 and 1984, for example, Safeway closed 600 of its inner-city stores. With this divestment, neighborhoods declined really quickly, and you ended up with a pretty dire situation, where there’s just no healthy food in the neighborhood.

People talk about food deserts — we try not to use that term for a lot of reasons. One is that it sucks to have someone describe your neighborhood as a desert. We’re trying to get folks to invest in these communities, and calling it a desert doesn’t exactly make you want to run down and open up a store. But also, there’s actually a ton of food in these neighborhoods, it’s just a ton of bad food — fast food and crappy food sold alongside booze, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Put all that together and you end up with a lot of health problems, not just obesity. There are places where it’s taken for granted that at a certain point you’re going to have diabetes — as if it’s inevitable. It’s all of our responsibility to make sure that no matter where you live, regardless of what zip code you’re in, that you have access to basic services, and I consider access to healthy food a basic right.

Feeney: What are some examples of steps Food Trust has taken try to combat these problems?

Lehmann: Let’s start with soda, since you’re from New York. In 2003, Food Trust spearheaded an effort to get soda out of the schools. It wasn’t exactly a popular position. Opponents tried to argue that it’s about choice, that we were trying to impose this on people. It was important for us to show that public opinion was actually on our side. We did a poll with parents throughout Philadelphia that showed that 90 percent of parents agreed that kids, when they’re in school, shouldn’t have access to soda. When we finally got it passed, Philly had one of the strictest vending policies in the country. That was one of the early victories.

Another important thing we’ve done is get healthy food retail into neighborhoods. A research study in the late 90s showed that Philly had the second fewest supermarkets in the country. We run almost 30 farmers markets, mostly in low-income areas. People would say to us, “You know, it’s great that you’re here, but four hours a week isn’t really cutting it.” It was clear that people needed an ongoing year-round source of fresh, healthy food. So through what we called the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative we were able to do 18 food retail projects in Philadelphia and almost 90 throughout the state of Pennsylvania.

Feeney: Food justice as an issue has really galvanized and inspired activists in recent years. Why do you think that is?

Lehmann: For me it’s a personal thing. I grew up in San Francisco. I’m 44 now, so starting in the ‘80s, the AIDS crisis had a big impact on me, on the entire city really. You truly felt like there was a war going on. At that point there were really no services for people suffering from HIV or AIDS, but there was a great amount of need. This was before the Ryan White Act and federal dollars started coming in. There was so much uncertainty. But what was inspiring to me was to watch how the community, particularly the gay and lesbian community, came together to organize, inventing services from scratch. Witnessing that was profound for me. Food justice is a different issue, but it’s a similar approach. This is an issue that, when I was in social work school, wasn’t in the conversation. So it’s been wonderful to see how awareness has grown, nationally as well as locally.

Feeney: Are there lessons that the food justice movement can share with other social justice movements?

Lehmann: When you open up a grocery store you can create up to 300 jobs in a neighborhood. When you bring a farmers’ market into a neighborhood, it’s also good for the environment — people like to know that their food didn’t have to travel thousands of miles from South America. Being able to speak about bringing healthy food into neighborhoods in terms of job creation or sustainability is a very important thing to be able to do. Tap into the values and understand what’s important to whoever it is you’re trying to influence. Frame the issue that matters to you in a way that also matters to others.

Another thing we really try to do at the Food Trust is avoid being seen as the finger wavers. We don’t want to be the “eat your broccoli” people. We celebrate food — food is one of the best parts of life. For example, we host something called Night Market where we shut down streets and bring out food trucks and bands. Sometimes people ask, “Why are you doing that?” But it really does fit perfectly into our approach. It’s not about making people feel bad about what they’re eating. It’s important to keep that joy of food and the idea that food can bring us together at the forefront.

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