October 13, 2009
My kind of town, Chicago is.....
I recently visited Chicago this past month (a.k.a. the Windy City, although it wasn’t as windy). The city should really be called “the Beautifully Constructed City” with its array of historic buildings, parks, open space and efficient transportation systems. It intrigued me enough that I decided to do the tourist thing; So I waited in line at the Sears Tower (known as Willis Tower now- horrible, isn’t it?), checked out some Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and then stumbled upon the Museum of Science and Industry.
For those who have never been, the museum is filled with an array of educational exhibits for youth and adults presented in a fun and imaginative way. (For you Bay Area folks, picture the Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium mixed into one). There was a great display about the effects of climate change, the impact of carbon footprints, the Greenest Home and they even had Harry Potter on IMAX!
Then at around 2pm CST, I came across the farm exhibit. In my mind, I’m thinking a big display about sustainable farming talking about the Farm Bill, clips of the movies Food, Inc.and FRESH playing on a screen, Michael Pollan stuff somewhere and maybe even a Michelle Obama white house garden photo! But instead, I run into this…An Exhibit on Corn Processing.
The display reads, “Corn is everywhere. After corn is harvested on the farm, it travels to the processing plant. Here it goes through many steps and ends up in products that you use every day.” To top it off, I heard a dad say, “Son, this is how they make all your favorite foods like french fries, chips and soda!” YIKES!
So for the foodies, farmers, food justice advocates, policy wonks, public health peeps or simply those recognizing that our food system is broke and needs fixing, the exhibit obviously left out some key components. Nowhere to be found were displays about the farming techniques that led to the extinction of farmers, especially generations of ethnic and native farmers. Nor did it explain the correlation between excess corn production and the cheap, low quality, high sugar foods that are pumped into our market and most notably, to our youth. This exhibit could arguably be called, “Look How We Expand the Nation’s Waistline!” With a quote from Sponge Bob saying, “Hey Kids, See how unhealthy food and drinks are made before being dressed up to taste good, marketed directly towards you and then sent straight to your school lunch and liquor store priced so cheap, you can buy 2!” I shouldn’t be giving anyone any ideas.
Seeing the exhibit was a GLARING reminder that for most of the public (especially youth), unhealthy food is still a part of everyday life. Arun Gupta said it best, “Americans are in the thrall of the food industry. More than half the population eats fast food at least once a week; 92 percent eat fast food every month.” 92 percent!
To reaffirm this, just mention to youth - energy drinks, soda, fast food, flaming hot (orangey you know what’s) and all their slogans, and they will know exactly what you are talking about. They might even ask if you have some! Unfortunately, that’s the reality that many of us have yet to grasp and need to get.
Whether you are someone working in the movement “to support youth so that they WILL outlive their folks” or just a concerned parent, we all need to understand the reality of what youth are facing and learn more about what we are up against… Most importantly, we need to find thoughtful ways to have more youth involved. I feel like we cannot progress until we really “get” youth (in terms of awareness and numbers!) Before saying things like local, sustainable, organic, fair trade, etc (yes, they’re all important), we need to start with simple messages that all youth can identify with. For example - processed, packaged foods (fast food, junk food, soda, energy drinks) harm the body while fruits, veggies, grains, water help the body. It’s not perfect, but that’s a message that we can all support and unite our efforts around.
And we would learn a lot more if there were more forums where youth could discuss the issues, argue/counter argue and formulate their own thoughts, stories and messages that could be expressed through various communication methods (twitter, facebook, texting, spoken word, video, etc.) From these discussions, youth would probably come up with better solutions and mobilization strategies than adults create for them. Check out what youth did in MO Project.
So let’s get real and make this their movement, not ours… which starts by understanding where youth truly are at. Then maybe the next time I’m in the Windy City, I could see a “keeping it real” corn exhibit or a display highlighting all the great work youth are doing across the country to improve the health of their communities. Let’s work with them to find REAL ways to connect it all together.
Lloyd Nadal is the Program Director at CANFIT. He has worked with low income communities and communities of color across the nation to improve physical activity and nutrition environments for youth.
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