Studies show Americans, and American children, getting fatter every year. In 2008, only the state of Colorado had an obesity rate of less than 20%. In six states (Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia) 30% or more of the population meet the medical definition of obesity.
New York’s state health department has targeted reducing obesity as an important goal. Ulster County’s health department, headed by Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, has followed suit. The Healthy Ulster initiative is tracking obesity among local youths.
According to the UK’s International Association for the Study of Obesity, children in this country are dramatically heavier than the children of 24 other Western nations. We’re edged out of top place, just barely, by tiny (but corpulent) Malta.
Ed Koch is hawking his new book, a children’s story about his memories of being “the fat kid” and about how he learned to eat a more healthy diet.
One problem is that in this economy diet is beyond reach for many Americans. A study which was published by the University of Washington concluded that a healthy diet as described by public-health officials is just plain too expensive for many American families.
Lead researcher Pablo Monsivais said that for a family barely making ends meet a picture of a plate of salmon, leafy greens and rice pilaf is just a picture. It’s nothing they’ll ever see on their own table.
Diane Reeder of Kingston’s Queens Galley soup kitchen pointed out another problem. “Access to fresh fruits and vegetables doesn’t mean a thing if you have no idea how to cook a green bean,” she said. “You may be familiar with a canned beet, but when you’re faced with a fresh beet what do you do? What about all that green stuff?”
The Queen’s Galley, which has played a role in feeding the hungry in Kingston and surrounding communities, began when Reeder saw a need to educate low-income families about healthy eating and teach recipes that their grandparents probably knew by heart. “Think about poverty as a generational cycle,” she said. “If you’re poor, you’re likely to stay that way. And if you don’t remember ever having access to fresh fruits and vegetables as a child, chances are you won’t choose them when you shop for your own children.”
Queens Galley co-sponsors an education program called “Cooking Matters” with Share Our Strength. Information on fresh food and healthy cooking is disseminated to families throughout the Hudson Valley. “I find the chefs and set up the classes with non-profit partners,” coordinator Jeanine Lindhorst explained. “We take no more than 15 people in a class and set them up for specific groups: kids, teens, young parents, families and adults. Then we show them what they’re eating.”
Students are taught how to calculate the number of teaspoons of sugar in their favorite foods. “Did you know there are 34 half-teaspoon packets of sugar in one 20-ounce bottle of soda?” Lindhorst asks. “That shocks them.”
To demonstrate the amount of fat in a fast-food meal, participants ladle vegetable shortening onto a rice cake. Then they put another rice cake on top, creating what Lindhorst called the “blubber burger.” “It’s so disgusting,” she said with a laugh.
The classes meet once a week for six weeks. Students are taught to break down a chicken (“That saves a boatload of money!”) or season a meal to their particular tastes. The program supplies groceries, curriculum and take-home supplies so that the students can duplicate the meal they’ve made at Cooking Matters in their own kitchens.
Partners like ShopRite stores and Youth and Family Services in White Plains, the New Paltz Youth Center, the YWCA, Community Action in Kingston and Kingston’s Children’s Home — where there will be a class in September — invite Cooking Matters in and provide the space for a class. They also find the students.
“In White Plains, we had a group of summer campers from Youth and Family Services,” said Lindhorst.
This cooking class doesn’t need four walls. Lindhorst has conducted classes at farmers’ markets with a portable stove (she’s currently shopping for an induction burner). And classes are held at the Queen’s Galley, which is teetering on the financial edge due to low funds and a deteriorating building.
Reeder founded the Queen’s Galley after she started teaching similar classes in 2003 and found a desperate need when she gave away the leftover food. The programs empower their students, she found. “They’re actively cooking,” she said. “They’re tasting what they’re cooking. And they’re learning how to prepare meals that are not only nutritious, but they taste good.”
Cooking Matters is looking for volunteers: chefs, nutritionists and assistant coordinators. Find out more at queensgalley.org.++