With monster 49ers tackle Bill “Bubba” Paris heading a soccer ball to Brandi Chastain (her idea) and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson leading elementary school students in San Jose on a lap around the field while still in a suit, Torlakson on Thursday kicked off Team California for Healthy Kids, an initiative to spread the gospel of healthy eating and exercise.
It’s not a new message, of course, but, faced with rising childhood obesity and asthma, cannot be said often enough. Between one-third and a half of minority children born this year will become afflicted with diabetes – an astonishing figure cited by Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
The California Center and other health advocates have succeeded in working with the Legislature to pass laws driving soft drinks and candy out of schools; it’s been a harder struggle, in part for lack of leadership and creativity, to bring good food into the schools.
A fresh food ethic is spreading, however, and reaching districts like Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, a low-income, predominately minority district in East San Jose, which Torlakson chose as his launching pad. At Ryan Elementary, kids have an open salad bar every day; through a federal grant, fresh fruit and vegetables from local growers arrive three times each week for distribution as snacks during breaks and recess; water is becoming the drink of choice; and students late for school no longer go hungry (serving breakfast in bags in the classroom has increased participation from 20 percent to 80 percent, according to Amber Watson, director of Alum Rock’s child nutrition services).
Companies like organic lunch provider Revolution Foods of Emeryville are finding they can make a business of lunch in public schools.
Team California has a website for passing along ideas and tips for physical activities like instant recess, quick exercises within a classroom. And Torlakson is hoping to inspire partnerships for after-school programs, collaborations with farmers markets and community gardens.
Certainly, if Torlakson could repeat the assemblage of star athletes that he brought together in San Jose – Paris, Chastain, pitchers Vida Blue and Bill Laskey, super marathon runner Dean Karnazes – in all 10,000 schools in California, kids would be inspired to change. Short of that – or without leadership at a district or community level – it will be a struggle to win over one student, one family, one school at a time.
Chastain, former Olympian and women’s professional soccer player, encouraged Ryan students to choose what’s best for them, regardless of what other kids are eating or doing with their time: “You are the leader of you; make choices that others aren’t making,” she said.
Paris, who protected Joe Montana in the ’80s when the 49ers won three Super Bowls, offered his life story as proof that people can will themselves to create a healthy lifestyle. Growing up in Louisville, Paris’ mother and grandmother showed their love in the food they made – “butter, sugar, and fatty things.”
“I thought that was normal; the love I found in my meals would live on” into adulthood. Rich foods with the worst ingredients were what he associated with family, comfort, happiness.
After he retired from football, his weight mushroomed to 400; he had high blood pressure and developed diabetes. He faced the odds of a short life.
He switched what he ate, lost 75 pounds (he’s still 325) and brought his diabetes and cholesterol under control. “I know how you can change things if you want,” he said, but more important is to start with a healthy lifestyle in elementary school.
Paris literally embodies America’s problem writ large. For the last 30 years, Goldstein said, the United States has undertaken a massive experiment to answer the question, What would be the impact on its children if the nation changed their food and activities by:
- Putting a fast food restaurant on every corner;
- Filling them up with sugary beverages sold in our schools;
- Taking away physical education or simply making it boring;
- Offering them alluring TV programs and computer games?
The answer is in, Goldstein said, with more than a third of children obese and overweight, with children today facing a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
“It is imperative,” Goldstein said, “that schools become a haven for a healthy environment.”