OK, time to do something I try to do very rarely: ask you all to do me a favor. I realize that you check out this blog with whatever frequency you manage to stop by so that you can get a couple of tips about feeding your family, maybe pick up a new recipe or two, and occasionally amuse yourself or stimulate your intellect by reading about my parenting foibles, my kids’ cute dinner table antics, or my take on whatever the food politics topic of the moment may be. You’re not here to help me further any particular cause, necessarily, and you’re not here to do me favors.
However, I assume that anyone who reads this blog is reading it partly because they are committed in some way to bettering the health of the people in this country, particularly the kids, and because they may think that the current path we are on as Americans is one that will not serve us well in the long term. So I didn’t think you’d mind very much if I happened to mention that Slate magazine has convened something called a “hive” on the topic of solving childhood obesity, and that they’re asking people to submit proposals for new and creative ways to address the problem. Oh, also, they’re letting people vote on the submissions, and they’re announcing the winners on March 21.
Can you guess what my favor is going to be?
I submitted. I had to. It’s not the most brilliant piece of thinking I’ve ever done, I’ll admit, but childhood obesity is a relatively broad topic (and Dad, if you’re reading this, no pun was intended). I mean, as some people I’ve talked to about the Slate hive have mentioned, it’s hard to even come up with a proposal to submit, because there are so many issues that need to be worked on — many of them at great length — that it can be paralyzing. Where to begin? What’s the one key issue, among the many contributing factors, that one should have the audacity to demand be addressed first?
I looked at the challenge a little differently, though; I didn’t think of it as ME, alone, all by myself, proposing to solve this very complex problem as an army of one. I looked at the hive concept as just that — a connected, interwoven, structurally ambitious and yet surprisingly strong network of ideas from many different people with diverse points of view. I think that’s what Slate wanted — a number of different ideas — because anyone reasonably intelligent has realized by now that it’s not just one thing that is going to make our kids healthier.
Speaking of healthier. I have to note that I also did not look at this as a purely weight-based challenge. To me, using the concept of weight as THE measurement of our children’s health is like using a kid’s SAT score as the major measurement of his intelligence. They may be related, or they may not be; one may be a very good indicator of the other, or it may not be. Yes, heavier children often have a tendency towards poorer health; but not always, and for all the well-nourished, active, healthy, routinely developing children out there who also happen to be a percentage point or two off their BMI to be considered less healthy than those among their peers who are fed a steady diet of junk (but manage to stay slim nonetheless) is nonsense in my book. So I didn’t focus on WEIGHT in my proposal; I focused on (what else?) family time, access to good food, and ways to make those two precious commodities more available to a greater number of people.
I don’t know, in a practical sense, if the things I’ve proposed could ever really work; like any new idea, my idea needs time and space to grow, be tested, and be revised and expanded upon before it would be a grand solution to any problem. But it seems to me that one thing almost nobody has talked about, in proposing solutions to the fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, is reversing the troubling societal trends that prevent so many families from actually getting to the dinner table together. We talk about the food; we talk about the time; we don’t talk about what’s broken around us that needs to be fixed before shopping for, cooking, and eating real food with our families can become possible once again for the majority of Americans.
What do I think is broken? So many things. There are too many activities scheduled during what used to be the sacred dinner hour; too many demands on our kids’ time. There are too many parents who can’t leave work until 5 p.m. or later, and spend so much time rushing around trying to pick up children and do essential errands that the choice between cooking and the drive-thru really comes down to a choice between feeding the kids at 9 p.m. or feeding them at 7. And when harried parents do get to do the shopping, they may rush to easy, familiar convenience foods or base their choices on what’s cheaper, not what’s healthier, because without time dedicated to shopping and making food choices as a family, with guidance from smart people like farmers and nutritionists and family dinner advocates, the grocery store just becomes another blip on the radar screen of an overburdened and overscheduled lifestyle.
Do I see myself in this? Absolutely, I do. I see my friends and neighbors, my coworkers, the people at my church; I see us all in this. We’re all racing all the time, and the more I try to slow down and develop a more reasonable pace for my life and my kids’ lives, the more I realize that the rest of the world is moving at warp speed with no ability to do much of anything purposefully, especially not something as mechanical as eating. Stomachs growl, they’re filled with whatever’s available, and barely a pause is taken to notice the food. Or get out of the car. Or chew.
We’ve done this to ourselves, and we have to fix it. It may be hard, but it means — to me, at least — pressing the rewind button and reeling in some of the impulse to leave NO WHITE SPACE on our calendars. If I ran the world, you’d see some of the things I proposed in the Slate hive taking effect immediately; like getting kids home, into their own houses, to eat dinner with their parents and do their homework and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Offering families who struggle to afford good food the opportunity to pay what they can for the perfectly good produce, meats, and grains the grocery store might otherwise throw out to make room for the newer shipments. Making sure that working parents have the chance, whenever feasible, to adjust their hours so they can be home with their kids to cook dinner, set the table, and pause…for just 30 minutes of the day…to be together and share real food.
Oh, it’s a pipe dream, but it’s one I can envision so clearly. Make the time and the food and the resources available, and I think people will put in the effort. Maybe I’m naive, but I believe that fundamentally we all want what is best for our children…and for ourselves. So do me a favor. Check out the Slate Hive. And if you agree with any of the five things I’ve listed there, anything at all, click the button and vote for me. It may not change anything, but then again, it just may.
Note: Due to a technical error, I can’t get the link to embed in the text of this post, so I’m doing this old-school. My submission to Slate can be found here: http://hive.slate.com/hive/time-to-trim/make-family-dinners-possible-again