Can we give our kids a healthy lunch?
For the first time in U.S. history, the current generation of children have a lower life expectancy than their parents, due mostly to obesity and other diet-related diseases.
The strain on our health-care system caused by diabetes and obesity alone can be calculated in the billions. We are just beginning to see the extreme negative ramifications to our communal health brought about by the switch in the 50's and 60's from a local farming culture to a food culture based on super-markets and fast-food restaurants.
In Los Angeles, the center of the image-conscious movie industry, where armies of health nuts march on treadmills in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, where personal trainers, nutrition stores, and farmers markets abound in places like Malibu and Marina del Ray, it's hard to conceive of a food swamp.
But Los Angeles is also the home of South Central and neighborhoods like Watts.
This is the story of a neighborhood that one food activist describes as "a little bit of hell on earth" - where both parents are working just to make ends meet, or single mothers struggle to find healthy produce, let alone afford it - where children subsist on junk food and their families struggle with diabetes, hypertension, and obesity in disproportionate numbers. Dr. David Martins, an internist in South LA told us, "I used to see amputations as a result of diabetes in African Americans in their late 30's and early 40's. Now I'm seeing them in teenagers and people in their early 20's."
This is an impoverished community swamped with an over abundance of fast food, liquor stores and corner markets that are the primary source of 'normal', daily meals.
In single-parent homes, or when both parents are working, children are often left to fend for themselves, buying what they can from the local corner and liquor stores. We see them on the buses in the mornings, eating ‘flaming hot' Cheetos and drinking soda. Janine Watkins of the Watts Community Action Coalition sees this is as a direct cause of some of the problems in school and a contributor to violent behavior, "Of course they're irritable and aggressive," she exclaims, "they're eating angry food!" What's more, many of these children are unaware of the health risks that regular consumption of this food could bring.
So what is the LAUSD doing to combat this problem, and what are the challenges they face – both logistically and politically? With the reauthorization of the Farm Bill coming up in 2010, and the Child Nutrition Act pending reauthorization this year, (having expired in September) the USDA faces the ongoing challenge of improving the quality of food provided to our children. If the Baltimore school system can work out how to get all the school food from local farms, can LA do the same?