Each week, our own Zach Brooks speaks with a Leader to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Zach’s profile and contact him.
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
Hands down, my 8-year-old son has been my biggest inspiration and source of education when it comes to the subject of children’s health. He grew up in a house with a mom who is a registered dietician and a dad who is a chef. He was one of the few 3-year-olds who would ask for an organic mixed green salad. Nonetheless, as he reached school age, I noticed how hard it became to protect him from less healthy foods. I recall awkward situations when a relative would innocently offer him a soda or when I discovered that a Sunday school teacher was using candy as a reward in class. It became clear that if we were struggling, as suburban parents with backgrounds in food and nutrition, it has to be doubly hard for some other parents.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
Although there are many remarkable programs that focus directly on children and institutions, I have come to realize that parents have the greatest influence on what their children eat and how they think about food — especially young children. My efforts are focused on teaching parents how to make healthy choices and prepare healthy food for their families.
Last year I developed and piloted a series of health cooking classes that I conduct free for local community organizations. The reaction has been amazing. Most parents are surprised to see that they can prepare completely nutritious meals quickly and inexpensively without abandoning cultural preferences.
The problem is that healthy eating has been wrongly defined by makers of diet foods as bland and boring. When I tell diverse audiences that food such as mangoes, papayas, nopales, coconuts, avocados, sweet potatoes, beans, greens and watermelons are “health foods,” the response is positive. The important step is then to provide delicious and simple recipes using such familiar ingredients.
My biggest wish now is to find organizations to partner with in order to expand the reach of these classes. Getting people to enjoy eating healthfully will play a major role in addressing our health crisis. (Editor’s note: Connect with Shedric here!)
What’s your biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
My biggest accomplishment so far has been the having my new book, The MicroNutrient Solution published. As part of the deal, I negotiated 25 percent of the proceeds to be devoted to fighting childhood obesity.
As sales start to increase, I am excited about the programs that we will be able to support. The book offers a very sound argument for eating more plant-based foods and it teaches 10 basic lifestyle habits that I find are often lacking in households where obesity is a challenge. I am talking about things like drinking more water and not skipping meals — simple things that are often ignored.
With the release of the book I have been invited to speak at this year’s Partners for Innovative Communities National Conference, where I will be presenting on “How To Eat Healthy On a Budget” and the Southern California Regional Students Wellness Conference, where I will talk about the importance of sustainable nutrition.
Who is your role model in your work?
As a chef, I would have to say Chef Jamie Oliver, in his fight against childhood obesity, is a great role model. I launched HealthfulChef.com about a year before Chef Oliver’s Food Revolution Series. I was thrilled to see someone with so much attention address many of the big problems built in to our food system… [he] is someone who has been using his cooking gift to promote good causes for more than a decade. I love that idea.
What healthy snacks did you enjoy growing up? What game or sport did you play growing up?
Although I grew up in an older section of Los Angeles, my family was steeped in southern tradition. I ate peaches and figs fresh from trees in our yard as a kid. My dad always maintained a produce garden. I remember melons, especially watermelon, being kept cold in the refrigerator. It was a big deal when they built the first Burger King in my neighborhood. Fast food was considered a rare treat back then.
Back then, kids seemed to spend 90 percent of our free time outdoors. I remember summer days when I would leave home on my bike at dawn and not return home until dusk. We would play basketball, baseball and other sports all day. Ironically, in spite of a lack of cell phones, my mom seemed to magically know my whereabouts, thanks to a well-developed mom’s neighborhood network. Needless to say, life was different for youngsters then in many ways.