National Hispanic Heritage Month starts today, and it's a great opportunity to celebrate our ever-growing Latino population, which will make up 29 percent of the U.S. population by 2050. But it's also an opportunity to confront an ever-growing threat to that population: childhood obesity.
"Although our loving Latina grandmothers have taught us that an overweight child is a healthy one, science has showed us otherwise...evidence suggests that it leads to an early death," said Dr. Juan Rivera, part of a panel on child health during the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's public policy conference here in D.C. on Monday.
The panel featured several politicians and nutrition experts. They looked at statistics—for example, the 27 percent rate of obesity among Mexican American teenage boys, compared with 17 percent among their white counterparts—and the evidence that this racial disparity is widening. They talked about the consequences of that trend, in terms of health and economics. They made a lot of good points. (And some I hope were hyperbolic: "There's no reason that we should see a child that's 250 pounds and only 5 years of age—that's ridiculous," declared Rep. Joe Baca of California.)
But I confess, I wasn't really there to hear them. I was there for local celebrity chef Jose Andres. He's been an active supporter of the Obama administration's moves to fight childhood obesity and an advocate for improving the quality of school lunches. He recently wrote an excellent editorial for The Atlantic's food channel titled "Now Is the Time to Feed Our Children Well." He's even lecturing at Harvard this fall! I knew he'd have something interesting to say.
Andres' talk was brief, but to the point. To stop the childhood obesity epidemic, he said, we should focus on three arenas—politics, education and business. On a political level, he spoke in favor of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act currently before the House. It "falls short" of the funding truly needed, Andres said, "but it's a first step."
He had harsh words for corn subsidies, arguing that they make it possible for soda and fast food to be cheaper than other, healthier foods, and that there is "a direct link" between corn subsidies and obesity rates in America and Mexico.
"Why don't we give subsidies to carrots?" Andres asked. "Why don't we give subsidies to every other vegetable?"
Education should also be part of the solution, he said, quoting the gastronomic philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: "The future of nations depends on how they feed themselves." In addition to giving kids access to better food, we should be giving them the information they need to make better eating choices.
Latinos can play a leading role in the fight against obesity because "good food seems to be in our DNA," Andres said, urging his fellow Hispanic Americans to "go back to our roots." During his childhood in Spain, he noted, he was rarely allowed to drink soda (one Coke a month, in summer) and although food seemed to be the center of everyone's family and social life, he doesn't remember having any friends who were obese.
In the case of business, Andres focused on restaurants, for obvious reasons. He referenced his own tapas-centric restaurants as proof that small plates can be big sellers, even though "when I started, people said it wouldn't succeed because Americans like big portions." Not that all eateries should switch to serving tapas, of course, but chefs and restaurants can change customers' expectations of portion sizes: "The 24-ounce soda and the 36-ounce porter steak has to be something of the past. We have to actively change the way we feed America."