When I attended the One Young World Summit in Zurich earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Jamie Oliver speak on healthy eating and nutrition, and his efforts through “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” to change the way Americans and the world think about food. At one point he polled the audience on how many in the room could cook a meal from scratch, and by this he meant, not using a microwave, or heating prepared foods. About 50 percent raised their hands. Keep in mind this was a group of well-educated young professionals. He then asked how long we expected to live. Let’s just say the percentage expecting to live to be in their 80’s was VERY high, too high. As Jamie noted, we were dreaming. Diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease would be sure to shorten our lives significantly. I came out of his talk wondering, what is being done to address this issue in Pittsburgh? Where is the movement? The answer became clear at the “Let’s Move Pittsburgh” symposium hosted earlier this fall at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, an event co-sponsor and regional leader in the healthy food movement, and I jumped at the opportunity to hear what was going on.
“Let’s Move Pittsburgh” is an effort to capitalize locally on the momentum coming out of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program that focuses on three pillars of children’s health: healthy food, increased activity, and decreased time in front of screens –TVs, digital games, computers, cell phones. One expert in childhood obesity prevention, Tufts University Ph.D Christina Economos, discussed her project, “Shape Up Somerville,” which aimed to transform the behavior of an entire Massachusetts town by focusing on unnecessary weight gain among its children. She took a holistic approach to this diverse and far-reaching epidemic by identifying stakeholders and how they can work together to reduce childhood obesity in their community. She stressed the need for champions of the cause, focusing on professional development for teachers, and noted that education for parents is just as necessary as for the children. Lastly, she encouraged us not to ignore the importance of policy in creating healthy food norms.
I also learned that Pittsburgh-area child-health organizations and individuals are already well aware of – and hard at work on — these issues. Sponsors The Heinz Endowments, UPMC Health Plan and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens were joined by child-health leaders from Allegheny General Hospital’s Integrated Medicine Unit, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Chatham universities, Hill House, Pittsburgh Public Schools, regional food banks and child-care centers, and many more. They shared their efforts, challenges and aspirations in childhood obesity prevention. I was impressed at the number of groups represented, and hopeful that the “Let’s Move” initiative can help buoy the local mission.
More sobering is the challenge ahead for the region, as schools with high prevalence of poverty tend to have high overweight and obesity rates, and are increasingly strapped for funding and other resources. It’s also a painful irony that communities facing high levels of obesity are also facing hunger.
But there are positive developments on the national level that can help. Sam Kass, Assistant White House Chef and Senior Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, noted that retail giants like Wal-Mart have agreed to reduce the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables, and to reduce the sodium and sugar content in all products sold in their stores. This alone could reach as many as 40 percent of Americans. Also, the shift from educational talking points that highlight the food pyramid to the more intuitive “My Plate” approach – teaching children to visualize the appropriate portions of different types of foods — seems like a welcome, practical change. National and local efforts to increase nutrition awareness are increasing and I’m hopeful that national policy shifts, coupled with the continued efforts of local child health leaders, will create healthier communities in Pittsburgh and beyond.