Weighty Matters

Recipe for Success
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This op-ed by Recipe for Success Founder, Gracie Cavnar appeared in The Houston Chronicle on Sunday, October 19, 2012. . .

Put down that cheeseburger and wrap your brain around this:  A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation projected that half of all adults in the U.S. will be obese by 2030. To make matters worse, the RAND corporation (who was the first to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union) just declared the collapse of the American waistline with the news that the number of morbidly obese in this country has doubled since 2010.  Obesity has now replaced smoking as the number one health hazard in America.

These trends aren't just alarming--provoking unprecedented rates of chronic diseases striking at early ages, and expensive--obesity is expected to cost U.S. taxpayers and businesses $370 billion by 2030, they are dangerous, too.  Our generals report that 25% of American military recruits are unfit to fight, critically impacting our national security.

Texas is one of the fattest states:  According to the CDC, over 30% of Texas children ages 2-5 are already either obese or overweight.  We know that obese children tend to become obese adults, but we also know that in most cases obesity is preventable.  No one would knowingly put a child's health at risk, but the sad truth is that many of us are unintentionally doing that everyday.  Our kids deserve better, and it's time we do something about it.  And by we, I mean all of us--government, parents, educators and the private sector--working together.

Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston City Council understand the gravity of the situation all too well, which is why I was encouraged by their recent launch of the Healthy Houston Task Force.   The group is charged with educating Houstonians to recognize, prevent and treat obesity; address changes in the built environment to support healthy lifestyles; make affordable, healthy food more accessible; promote worksite wellness; and teach children and their families healthy habits.

Without a doubt, a child's most influential teachers are parents, so critically important lessons about healthy living begin at home: Turn off the TV, video games, computers and smart phones to take a regular family walk and give your kids unstructured time to play outside.  Add more fresh vegetables to family meals and involve your kids in grocery shopping, gardening and cooking. Like the old saying goes:  The family that cooks healthy meals together avoids Type II diabetes together.

Our kids spend most of their day in school, which should be a centerpiece of healthy living.  HISD and other districts deserve credit for getting school lunches in line with new federal nutrition standards--a step in the right direction, but more is needed. What good is a healthier menu when students can grab an ice cream sandwich for lunch instead or have unlimited access to vending machines?  Let's get the junk out and the good food in. Period.  No PE? We should demand it and nutrition education to boot. But most importantly, our educators need to walk the talk.  You are our children's roll models.

Did I mention how much this crisis is weighing down our wallets?  Health care for obese citizens cost 42% more than for normal weight ones.  But even more breathtaking, is the $190 billion the epidemic cost American businesses in 2010.  Businesses focused on worksite wellness enjoy more productive employees and reduced insurance costs, so programs that support preventive measures like exercise and healthy lifestyles are win, win, win, since the benefits filter down to the entire family.

Hooray for good corporate citizens who extend their healthy lifestyle culture by encouraging employees to volunteer in school wellness efforts.  Hundreds of folks from top Houston businesses like SenseCorp and PricewaterhouseCoopers have helped my foundation, Recipe for Success, build gardens and kitchen classrooms in elementary schools across the city where we have taught 20,000 children about healthy food hands-on and given them lifelong skills to make good decisions.  Countless other efforts like Urban Harvest and the Food Bank benefit from corporate partnerships as well.  But there is so much left to do.   We all need more hands and support to effectively reach Houston's one million children.

We have a choice to make as a society:  We can do nothing and watch as an entire generation grows from obese children to obese adults, becomes chronically ill and dies young, costing billions of dollars in health care and lost economic activity, and leaving the country without a battle-ready military.  Or, we can say, "Enough is enough." 

I think that if Houstonians set our sites on a goal, anything is possible. Our Mayor, City Council and the Healthy Houston Task Force are saying, "Enough already! Let's fix this problem."  I'm on board to do everything I can to make a difference, and I hope you are too. 

So, what are you serving the kids for dinner tonight?

Read this editorial in The Houston Chronicle archives, here.

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