Tuesday, June 8, 2010


June 10, 2010

At Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx, the summer vegetables — tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra, collards, beans, cucumbers, melons — are growing lustily in the hot weather, shading the early-spring plantings of lettuces, spinach, radishes, and cilantro, which the gardeners are now harvesting. The cool-weather crops of peas, broccoli, and carrots will be ready soon.
At this time of year, the garden is a busy place. Kids off the street and from local youth groups come by to dig for earthworms, shriek at centipedes, pull weeds, shovel compost, plant seeds, water, and wonder at the miracle of life.
Recently, after they'd put in a morning of solid work, I asked the kids if they'd like some lemonade. Before they had a chance to reply, their youth-group leader interjected, "Or I could take you to McDonald's."
Guess which option they chose.
McDonald's! I cringed. After all that hands-on education in urban farming, they still salivate for greasy McNuggets, salty fries, and sugary sodas.
My mind went a step further: But what about my instant lemonade, that sweetened water with a little flavoring? Right next to the pitcher in the fridge was a big jug of apple juice — why didn't I think of offering them that?
Am I becoming a food alarmist? Will I supplement reading the obituaries in the morning paper with reading the Nutrition Facts on the cereal boxes? Will seeing a kid with a Burger King bag cause the same horrified reaction as seeing a kid with a pack of Marlboros?
I hope not — I guiltlessly take in a Whopper now and then — but it's hard to resist dietary paranoia. Every few months some study linking some food to some disease hits the news and the nerves, only to disappear or be discredited. As one friend, a native of the Gambia, West Africa, once told me: "Back home, we eat to live. Here in America, we eat to die."
The latest object of national obsession is childhood obesity, an issue now made prominent by First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign against it.
This may not be paranoia. Something is actually following us.
We all know the statistics, and it's not just about childhood: Over the last 30 years, the percentage of clinically overweight adults in the U.S. rose from 45% to 68%, and those classified as obese jumped from 13% to 34%. For children and adolescents, the overall numbers have increased from around 7% overweight/obese to 30%. The latest studies in New York City indicate that 43% of elementary school children are overweight.
We all know the results of obesity: diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers.
And we all know the reasons, too: processed foods, sugary drinks, lack of exercise.
Not one of the half-dozen children in the garden that day was overweight — they, among their friends and classmates, probably showed up there because they enjoy the outdoors and physical activity; they may even like vegetables. It may also be that to them and to their parents, a trip to McD's is a rare treat, not a daily diet.
But what about the rest?
Twenty years ago, a nearby pastor celebrated the arrival of the first McDonald's in this neighborhood, right up the street from his church; to him it was a sign that the South Bronx was bouncing back. Now there are three of them, and you'll pass plenty of other fast-food outlets and carry-out delis in between.
You deserve a break today. In fact, you deserve a break this very minute.
At first glance it's crazily incongruous that obesity rates are the highest among the poor. More than one cynical visitor to this area has remarked, "If hunger is such a problem around here, why are so many people fat?"
The answer to this paradox is the paradox of the food- delivery system. A recent segment of the PBS NewsHour profiled the problem of obesity in the town of Lambert, Miss., where farming is an industry, the crops are trucked away, and all the system gives them back to eat comes from the convenience store, the pizza place, and the ubiquitous McDonald's — no good supermarkets for 20 miles. In the midst of plenty, Lambert is what the experts are now calling a "food desert." People have lost their ancestors' skills at raising their own food in their back yards, as well as their ambition for it; stories of picking beans, shucking peas, gathering eggs, and baking blackberry pies for the family dinner are just stories now. Locked in the grip of the system, it's hard to think and act beyond it.
In many respects, the South Bronx is better off than Lambert in terms of food delivery. Supermarkets with a decent if limited selection of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats are within walking distance for most. But the ready availability of the quick-fix — the sweet, the salty, the packaged, the processed — is irresistible. Given the choice, people will bypass the oven for the microwave, the preparation for the prepared, the cookbook for the can. That's especially the case among the poor, for whom instant gratification of open-and-eat is one of their few consolations.
Conquering obesity means conquering the industrial food- delivery system and putting a local one in its place. The gardeners at Genesis Park are pointing the way.

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