Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Sunday

November 24, 2012

Ag Forum: Avoid dangers of obesity

Have you heard of acanthosis nigricans?

I hadn't — not until I served on the planning committee for a recent event that Munson Medical Center and PriorityHealth sponsored to raise awareness about the significant impacts of obesity on our community, our economy, our schools and our health.

Part of the ShapeMichigan event included a 45-minute viewing of portions of the four-hour HBO series, "Weight of the Nation."

Because my work for the Michigan Land Use Institute involves supporting schools in their efforts to get healthy food grown by local farmers into our kids' cafeteria meals, I watched the entire series in advance. And I watched the one-hour "Children in Crisis" segment over and over. I can't forget one girl — a 14-year-old dancer who was overweight — whose eyes grew wide and startled in the camera as a doctor pointed out to her parents a slightly darkened ring of skin encircling her neck.

The barely noticeable ring, the doctor said, is evidence of resistance to insulin. It can be associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes — the type of diabetes we used to see mostly in adults. This warning ring also was a wake-up call for other children and adults in the series.

With farm to school programs, the "aha" moments for kids, farms and the community are different, and decidedly positive. We've seen new business relationships develop between schools and farms. The Michigan Land Use Institute also placed two of the nation's first 50 FoodCorps service members — associated with AmeriCorps — in schools working with kids in school gardens, cafeteria tastings of local food, and in the classroom.

Parents at one school told us, "I don't know what you did today in the lunchroom, but my daughter told me she tried winter squash and she loved it! How did you do it?"

At another school, fourth graders learned the metric system by harvesting and weighing beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots and parsley from the school garden. They made an apple cider-ginger cole slaw out of the ingredients, and shared it with their peers at lunch. Later, several students told us they made the cole slaw again with their parents at home and that their families loved it.

And a few years ago, a local asparagus farmer said he got calls from parents looking to buy his product because their kids raved about eating it roasted at school.

Now we have even more good news. MLUI, along with eight area districts we've been working with, was just selected for one of 68 new U.S. Department of Agriculture grants across the country to scale up farmers' capacity to meet school needs for vegetables, and for more education to turn kids on to the flavors of our region's bounty.

MLUI and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District also have launched a fundraising campaign called 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms to give schools more buying power within their tight food budgets to purchase local fruits and vegetables. Schools have only 20 to 30 cents per meal to buy produce, but they have pledged to match each 10 cents from this fund with an additional 10 cents from their existing school lunch dollars.

At the ShapeMichigan event, we were asked to make our own action-oriented pledges. I encourage you, at this holiday season, to consider contributing to the 10 Cents a Meal fund. Just $10 would provide local fruits and vegetables for 100 kids, or about four classes, for one day. A pledge of $100 would provide it for almost a week for an elementary school with two classes each of grades 1-5.

It's 10 cents or $10 or $100 for our local economy — and for our kids, so that fewer of them have to face the dangers of obesity.

Diane Conners is senior policy specialist in food and farming at the Michigan Land Use Institute. To give online to the 10 Cents a Meal program, go to utopiafound.org and click on Utopia Funds. The Utopia Foundation will provide a 25 percent match of the first $10,000 in donations. You can also find obesity and health information at shapemichigan.com; and view the HBO series, which includes a section on local agriculture, at theweightofthenation.hbo.com.

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