This past weekend, Weight Watchers sponsored an incredible gathering for familes called "Fun and Fit in the City." Held at the Harlem Children's Zone, the event kicked off the NY Food and Wine Festival and featured a moving speech by former president Bill Clinton and an engaging panel discussion with Rachael Ray, Dr. Mehmet Oz and former NBA star Allan Houston.
When I arrived, the place was jam packed. Hundreds of people were filing into the gymnasium at the Harlem's Children's Zone and as I walked around the perimeter of the room, I met the founders of organizations that were making a difference to help feed families in need. From CookShop, to Share Our Strength, to the Food Network, to Hip Hop Stroke and Weight Watchers, which was the title sponsor of the event, the focus of the afternoon centered on healthy eating for families.
The first woman who took the stage was Deborah Sullivan, a mom of two whose daughter had been morbidly obese. Rather than allow her child continue on a destructive path that could eventually lead to diabetes, Deborah managed to find ways to cook healthier meals for her kids. Before long, not only did her girls lose weight, but other members of the community started eating at her house and now, she feeds nearly one dozen children every day of the week. "Love means I have to give our kids what they need. Not what they want," she says.
The Food Network's Sarah Copeland then shared the news that the Harlem Children's Zone, had just unveiled a community garden within the building so that children could harvest their own vegetables and learn how to cook them too.
Next, representatives from Hip Hop Stroke walked up to the podium and rapped for the crowd. Hip Hop Stroke is comprised of a group of passionate young adults (one was a former rap star) who visit public schools on a regular basis, counseling kids about healthy eating. When they asked a question of the audience, I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the results. "How many of you know a person who has had a stroke?" Out of 400 people in the room, I'd venture to guess that at least 300 waved their hands high in the air.
Also in attendance was the founder of Share Our Strength which provides food for hungry families nationwide, the CEO of Harlem Children's Zone and the President of Weight Watchers, which is committed to providing adults with the resources they need to not only incorporate healthy eating habits into their own lives, but to encourage them to pass along that behavior to their children. We also heard from two Weight Watchers leaders who collectively lost an entire person between them! Together they offered heartfelt advice on how to make small changes in your life that could lead to a healthier way of life.
We then met Angelica, a young woman who had lost more than 80 pounds and was now a member of the youth advisory board for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation - an organization founded by former president Bill Clinton to combat childhood obesity. And then, within minutes, everyone in the room erupted in thunderous applause. Bill Clinton had officially arrived.
Clinton, whose very presence can electrify a room, made a special appearance at the event to talk about an issue that has now become his personal crusade - the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization determined to fight the war against childhood obesity. Through his moving and eye-opening speech, I learned that a young girl in Harlem had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at age nine - even though Type 2 is typically an adult disease. Moreover, if left unchecked, the effects of diabetes on kids could have tragic results - from blindness, to amputation, stroke and even death.
Clinton explained that his organization is committed to educating kids about healthy eating and removing snacks and drinks with high caloric content from schools nationwide. But what really hit home with me was when Clinton talked about health care. He explained that if we all took better care of ourselves and our families by imparting healthy eating habits into our households, we could prevent all of the serious maladies that are affecting children and families in economically disadvantaged communities. He even reasoned that if we took better care of our health, employers would be more inclined to give their employees raises rather than shelling out more money for insurance company fees that are continually on the rise.
But at the core of Clinton's message was that parents need to play an active role in their kids' lives. From teaching them about the right way to eat, encouraging them to step away from the TV, computer and video games so they can get some much needed exercise and ridding schools of vending machines offering junk food, we could all be on our way to raising healthier and resilient children.
Once Clinton left the stage, we heard from New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who announced the city is working hard to get green markets to accept food stamps and encouraged audience members to get out and shop the green markets rather than indulge in fast food options.
The second half of the event featured a panel discussion with Rachael Ray, Dr. Mehmet Oz., former NBA superstar Allan Houson and NY Times food columnist Tara Parker Pope. I really enjoyed this part of the program because each brought their own personality to the discussion. Ray shared how she once lived in a one room apartment in Queens and didn't have a dollar to her name. But since she knew how to cook, she could go into the supermarket, purchase beans, rice and spices and whip up a delicious meal. Rachael's message was simple - if we teach our kids how to cook for themselves, then we are arming them with the tools they need to eat and remain healthy for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Oz shared a story of the time he was shocked to find himself performing bypass surgery on a 25 year old woman. That experience made him aware of the dangerous effects that unhealthy eating is having on our nation's youth. Parents cannot continue to feed their kids a diet of chicken nuggets, french fries and burgers without realizing these actions could have deleterious effects on their quality of life. In fact, if we continue down the path of feeding our kids foods that are high in trans fats and sugars, the life expectancy of our children could wind up shorter than our own. If that isn't a wake up call, I don't know what is.
I also really liked an analogy that Allan Houston used about the importance of fueling our bodies with healthy food. He recalled working at a gas station when he was young and marveling at a Mercedes that had distinct instructions near the gas gauge: Premium Fuel Only. And suddenly it hit him. If we give expensive cars only the best fuel, shouldn't that concept ring true for our own bodies? If we fuel our bodies with junk, we'll feel awful. But on the flip side, if we eat right, we are providing our bodies with the optimum fuel it needs to perform at its peak.
I also loved hearing that Allan's grandmother was about to celebrate her 101st birthday. Her secret to a long and healthy life? Home cooking and no fast food!
The audience was then asked if they had questions for the panelists and nearly half of them stood up to share their stories. And one by one we heard from people who are suffering from serious ailments - from heart and gastric issues, to the loss of limbs due to diabetes. At that very moment, I realized what a serious crisis we truly have in our nation. We can all agree that health care costs are out of control but as politicians decide whether everyone in our nation is eligible to receive it, they should also be agreeing to spend money on preventative care. It is imperative that we educate communities about the importance of healthy eating. Heck - send Bill Clinton, Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz and Allan Houston on a road tour to more communities in need of their expertise. The obesity epidemic is something that can actually be stopped. So why don't we all make an effort to wipe it out once and for all?