(The Root) — Whether it is Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, the link between childhood obesity and sexual abuse, celebrities' weight-loss proclamations or the removal of recess from high-risk schools, the fight against obesity has been a major topic of recent public discourse.
The Root has launched an initiative to address obesity in the black community by publishing a series of interviews with health experts and activists and hosting a number of events. As part of the site's Black, Fit & Healthy series, health care providers, educators, advocates, politicians, naturopaths and the like gathered at the Washington Post building in downtown D.C. on July 13 for Focus on Obesity, a daylong conference that focused on understanding the obesity crisis and identifying solutions. The event included panel discussions that touched on three main areas: home and community solutions, health-disparities solutions and school-based solutions.
Each panel offered a different perspective and led to lively discussions between panelists and audience members. The day's first panel, moderated by The Root's managing editor, Sheryl Huggins Salomon, examined how we can establish healthier homes and communities. Blogger Erica Nicole Kendall, who runs the website A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss, discussed the difficulties of incorporating weight loss into your daily activities but reminded attendees that it can be done through creative measures.
Lawrence Williams, president of the United States Healthful Food Council, mentioned that there are challenges involved in making it more economical to provide healthier food. His organization partners with restaurants, grocers, markets and schools to promote better meal options. "You can't ignore the economics of the problem," he said. "Trying to help align the bottom line with the waistline is important."
The question of where to channel energies in the battle against obesity also surfaced. Ron Dellums, a former congressman and mayor of Oakland, Calif., said that a lot of these discussions focus on budgets and policies but don't even mention the people who are involved. "We cannot forget the humanity needed in solving this issue," he said. "It has to be a holistic discussion."
Crystal Beverly, a holistic health care practitioner who lives in Oakland, stated that people with weight problems have to be proactive in making lifestyle changes. "The mindset has to go from asking those in authority to do something to being empowered and making decisions for yourself and your community," she said.
After the first panel, attendees watched a segment from HBO's documentary series the Weight of the Nation that focused on childhood obesity and later enjoyed a luncheon catered by Elizabeth's Gone Raw that featured vegan and vegetarian options. Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, gave the keynote address. He stated that all children deserve healthy food and shared anecdotes of getting young people to change the way they think about nutrition.
Lauren Darensbourg, director of strategic partnerships for minority and underserved populations at the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, recalled how she had to recalibrate her approach to food and body image. She explained that obesity can be cultural because if everyone around you is big, you don't necessarily understand that something is wrong with it.
"I'm from Louisiana, so I was surrounded by food and large people all of my life," she said. "I began to change my eating and fitness habits when I went to college. When I began working for the President's Council, it became clear that fitness and healthy behaviors had to be an ongoing commitment in order to sustain a healthy lifestyle."
After Kass' remarks, The Root's deputy editor, Lauren Williams, led the next seminar, which focused on how medical professionals and health care providers can help close the gap in obesity. Dr. Michelle Gourdine, from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, discussed the need for educating health care providers about the cultural factors involved in dealing with patients. Veteran journalist Sheree Crute, the founding health editor for Heart & Soul magazine, discussed the need to change the way that blacks and obesity are talked about in the community.
Both experts deconstructed the findings in a recent study that concluded that black girls do not reap the same benefit from exercise as their white counterparts, highlighting the problems with the design of the study and the fact that the girls were self-reporting, which often skews results. Gourdine also advised attendees to reduce their levels of stress and to say no to some things. "Self-care is not selfish," she added.
Cynthia Gordy, The Root's senior political correspondent, led the conversation on the day's final panel about how our schools can do a better job helping children lose weight. Mack Jones, principal of the Kennedy School in Washington, D.C., warned that school officials are focused on the wrong things, like test scores, and need to think about the holistic development of youngsters.
"I believe that if you get this fitness-and-nutrition piece together, then those other things will fall into place," Jones said. "A child should get enough rest, enough of the right foods and see school as a refuge. It's about the whole person. There is not enough being done to service [the] entire child."
Chef Wilhelmina Bell stated that it's important for expose children to healthy foods and help them expand their palates. "I use a lot of herbs to flavor the foods," explained Bell, who is the head chef and kitchen administrator of Children's Village, a Philadelphia-based organization that provides early-childhood education. "I love to do taste tests with the children and develop their taste palate."
Making sure that there are safe spaces outside available to children was a top priority for Danielle Moodie-Mills. "I am a former teacher, and I believe that wellness, health and movement need to be a part of professional development for teachers," said Moodie-Mills, who is the National Wildlife Federation's director of education advocacy.
Ultimately, this event gave people from all walks of life an opportunity to come together and share ideas about conquering obesity in our communities. Join The Root at our next Black, Fit & Healthy series event and become a part of the discussion and the process of ending obesity in our community.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.