The problems associated with child obesity are vast. There is an enormous strain on the health care industry while retired military leaders have warned of a serious threat to national security because many young people are unfit to enlist.
There are many suggestions on what to do. We all know them by heart. Eat right. Exercise. What else is there? The military folks propose a revised school lunch, citing that kids who have junk food at school put on the pounds. I agree that nutritious, healthy food is best.
The revised school lunch plan seems like good sense, but can the cause of obesity be addressed through school lunches? When I went through grade school in the 1970’s, our 40-cent lunches consisted of sloppy joes, pizza, spaghetti, fried fish sticks or cheeseburgers with fries and not much else that could be called healthy. Most of us dumped the soggy side vegetables and went outside to the ice cream window to get our 10-cent ice cream sandwich or fudge bar. We were not obese. None of us.
What is different from then to now? For starters, we didn’t have vending machines offering us junk food in school. We were physically active, required to run, jump, skip, hop and climb on a regular basis through daily physical education and recess. After school many of us walked or rode our bikes home. Then we played outside. We ran around, jumped rope, created things, rode bikes, used our imagination, skateboarded, climbed trees and walls, roller skated, and the boys set up sports games in the street. We were on the move.
There were snacks and ample sugary treats, but food was not a focus like it seems to be today. We went to school in the morning after breakfast, and many of us had cooked dinners in the evening. The microwave was not yet a fixture in every kitchen. Wafting through the neighborhood after about 5:00 p.m. was the scent of home cooking. For a short time, kids would disappear from the streets, and then, weather and light permitting, they would be back outside again to play a bit more before nightfall.
We had television but no electronic games for it yet. There were no computers or computer games, so there was less reason to stay inside and be sedentary. If nothing was on one of the seven television channels, three of which were black and white, we entertained ourselves. If you were in a house like mine, any complaints about boredom were quickly remedied with the assignment of a household chore.
Even with all the lifestyle changes, why is obesity a national crisis today? We know many modern snack foods have chemicals that make us want to have “just one more.” It is widely known that our penchant for “fat-free” items have only served to make us fatter. After all, the human body needs fat. Genuine, full-of-fat butter is what many of our ancestors, mothers and grandmothers ate – without an obesity crisis.
This focus on food is valid, but I believe the crux of the problem is this: the American soul has been deflated. It sank and ran out of air while we ran our busy lives. Authentic human interaction is now limited by way of a one-on-one relationship with the computer; the value of free, unscheduled time has been lost; and soul-nourishing home cooked meals have been replaced by fast food. The imagination died while sitting hour after hour in front of the television. Add the spirit-numbing diet of tragic news and images from around the world delivered through about 500 television channels and the computer. Whose soul wouldn’t be desperate for substance?
For nourishment, we turn to the first basic human need: food. We eat to fill the emptiness, loneliness and nagging lack of meaning weaving through our lives. But we don’t get filled up. So we eat some more. We come up empty. So we eat some more. Still empty. Most are unaware of what needs filling. It’s not the tummy in this land of plenty. Food cannot nourish all that has been lost.
If you have an obese child or if you work with children struggling with this issue, the soul of the child must be tended to with those things that have always filled the souls of children: the freedom to play in unstructured time, human interaction and friendship, fostering the imagination, physical and mental activity, home-cooked meals, love. With these, you might notice a diminishing need to satiate the void through eating. The best way to do this for any child is to also do it for yourself. After all, you are the role model of how to live for each child you influence.