Sixty-eight percent of adults; 32 percent of children. That's how many people in America are overweight or obese.* The number on the scale used to be a personal matter; now it has become part of a national crisis.
Everyone, from the First Lady to the players in the National Football League, seems to be taking action to reduce obesity - especially childhood obesity - and make America a healthier nation.
Should agriculture be a part of this movement? If so, what role should it play?
I had an opportunity to discuss this topic last weekend at the Minnesota Farm Bureau annual meeting. One thing was clear: there are a lot of different opinions regarding the role of agriculture in addressing the issue of obesity.
Here's mine:
Everyone needs to be involved in the battle against obesity, including agriculture.
From a business perspective, we need to make sure we're not being falsely accused by others as being part of the problem.
Critics of modern agriculture have led many to believe that farm subsidies are one of the major causes of our country's obesity epidemic. They claim subsidies result in an overabundance of cheap, fattening foods.
The truth, however, is that economic analyses of farm subsidies shows "that U.S. farm subsidies have had generally modest and mixed effects on prices and quantities of farm commodities, with negligible effects on the prices paid by consumers for food and thus negligible influence on dietary patterns and obesity." (Choices, 3rd Qtr. 2010)
We can't set the record straight if we're not in the game.
From a humanitarian perspective, we owe it to our children to take action.
Since 1980 the number of children who are obese has almost tripled, and 70 percent of obese children already have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Yes, that was children and heart disease in the same sentence.
If there's anything we can do to improve children's health, we must do it.
So what can agriculture do?
We can continue to support research. Most check-off programs are already invested in food and nutrition research. Many are supporting weight management research. This is key. Because there's no one-size-fits-all approach to weight management, we need a variety of scientifically-backed methods to compete with the proliferation of lose-weight-quick schemes.
We can collaborate with other organizations, like the American Heart Association and the American Dietetic Association. Health education and food education are inseparable. Health policy and food policy will likely become more connected. Agricultural organizations and health organizations should be connected, too.
The dairy industry's partnership with the NFL in the Fuel Up to Play 60 program is a great example of the power of collaboration.
We can educate. Interestingly, in the FDA's Health and Diet Survey, 95 percent of Americans said they were "confident that they know how to choose healthy foods" and 92 percent said they knew "how much physical activity they should be doing." But, in a survey done by the International Food Information Council, only 12 percent of Americans could "accurately estimate the number of calories they should consume in a day for a person of their age, height, weight and activity level."
There's obviously a huge gap between what people think they know and what they actually do, and it's pretty challenging to try to teach someone something they think they already know (or don't want to learn). But, by partnering with health organizations and the media, we can make sure accurate information about healthy eating is available to those who seek it.
We can also support food and nutrition education in schools. There's a lot of talk in agriculture about how many generations removed from the farm most people are. I'm afraid pretty soon we'll be talking about how many generations removed people are from cooking. One of my high school classmates recently posted on Facebook that he'd just chopped an onion for the first time in his life. I was appalled.
What do people who don't know how to cook eat? Prepackaged meals and fast food. If I had to hold one thing accountable for the rise in obesity in our country, this would be my vote.
A great example of agriculture supporting food and nutrition education in schools is the garden project at Sibley East High School in Arlington, Minn. The Sibley East FFA Chapter plants and tends a 3-acre garden. The produce harvested from the garden is used in the school cafeteria. I'm guessing a vast majority of the students at Sibley East had never tried zucchini casserole before it was served in school, but they eat it now!
Finally, we can contribute to efforts to fight hunger and poverty, both of which make people more vulnerable to obesity.
This is just a short list, but I think it's clear that there's a lot agriculture can do, and should do, in the battle against obesity.
What's your opinion? Should agriculture play a role in addressing the issue of obesity? If so, what should that role be?
(Since I'd really like to know what you think, everyone who mails or emails me their thoughts will be entered into a drawing to receive a Dairy Star stocking cap.)
*References available upon request.
Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 70 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have two children - Dan, 4, and Monika, 2. Sadie also writes a blog for the Dairy Star at http://dairystar.blogspot.com. She can be reached at gsfrericks@meltel.net.