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First lady to bring anti-obesity campaign to Chicago

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 10:14 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — First lady Michelle Obama will bring a star-studded lineup to Chicago on Thursday to tout the success of her national campaign against childhood obesity. But some of the toughest battles on that front are still being fought at neighborhood schools far from all the glitz and glamour.

Two years after Chicago Public Schools kicked French fries and cheese-laden nachos off lunch menus in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, many teachers still are trying to convince students to give dishes like hummus and cucumber slices a try.

“We just like chips with our food,” said Lee Green, 10, a third-grader at Oscar DePriest Elementary in Chicago, who was a big hit at lunch this week when he poured his Cheetos onto his friends’ plates alongside raw broccoli florets and vegetarian baked beans. “I don’t eat broccoli.”

“Ain’t no cheese on it,” another student blurted.

Chicago officials acknowledge that the first lady, who has enlisted high profile celebrities like Beyonce and Big Bird in her campaign, has helped push the largely silent epidemic of childhood obesity into the national spotlight. Her multicity tour stops in McCormick Place on Thursday, where 3,000 students will have a chance to mingle with sports stars including gold medal gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, tennis superstar Serena Williams and professional skateboarder Paul Rodriguez, also known as P-Rod.

While health officials in some cities have given the first lady’s 3-year-old “Let’s Move” initiatives credit for slight declines in national childhood obesity rates over the last three years, the impact is not as clear in Chicago.

Policies to improve school lunches, remove sugary snacks from vending machines and add recess to the school are still fairly new, and some schools are struggling to find effective ways to make them work.

In some poor and minority neighborhoods, getting students to eat better requires more than just adding brown rice to the menu. It means changing a culture built around fast food and reversing generations of unhealthy eating habits that have developed alongside poverty.

“People often make the mistake of saying obesity is all about choice, but it’s not just an individual issue,” said Adam Becker, executive director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, which is comprised of local health organizations.

“The decisions we make on a daily basis about what we eat, drink and how active we are all are shaped by the conditions in which we live,” Becker said. “Safety from traffic and crime and access to healthy food are beyond any one individual’s influence.”

At Oscar DePriest Elementary, where more than 97 percent of the pre-kindergarten through eighth-graders are poor enough to qualify for free lunch, the staff tries to find creative ways to coax children into eating foods like tuna salad and fresh oranges.

Teachers sometimes sit at the small tables with the children and eat food from the cafeteria line to show them it’s OK. They hold food tastings that showcase celery sticks and carrots. And they incorporate different foods into the lesson plans taught in the classroom.

At lunchtime, the principal walks through the cafeteria wearing plastic gloves and carrying a knife, slicing oranges in half because some children, who are not used to eating fresh fruits, don’t know how to peel them.

“Before we started cutting them open, the children weren’t eating them. Now, they are all eating what would have been thrown in the trash,” said Minnie Watson, who has been the school’s principal for eight years.

Still, children smuggle in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Doritos, which they share with their friends at lunch. Watson often looks the other way, conceding that it’s tough to compete with the corner stores the children walk past on the way to school.

With snow piling up outside this week, recess was held in the cafeteria. The sound of children laughing and yelling while playing “word” hopscotch filled the room.

Antonio Rivers, a 14-year-old eighth-grader said some kids bring Mountain Dew and other flavored soft drinks into the school. The principal doesn’t condone it, he said, so they sneak it in. But Rivers said he has noticed a positive change in the younger students since the school stopped serving fried foods and sweets.

“Their behavior is far more calm,” he said, snacking on his personal stash of sunflower seeds. “They used to be more hyper.”

Watson admits there are challenges with her 580 students, but that hasn’t stopped her from trying to convert them to a healthy lifestyle. The school, which is on the Chicago Public Schools closing list, has homeless students and others whose only meals for the day are served at school.

“Sometimes the city doesn’t realize the magnitude of hunger,” said Watson. “Children who live in poverty don’t have fruits and vegetables at home. Some don’t think they will get enough food, so they gobble it down quickly. It takes years of teaching that you don’t have to stuff yourself, because it leads to obesity. It’s a learning curve and it’s ongoing.”

Despite a lack of resources, DePriest is an example of how some schools are fighting to beat the odds. Recently, the school achieved silver status in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Healthier US School Challenge.” Along with a plaque and a large banner for the hallway, the certification comes with a $1,000 grant the school plans to use to purchase playground equipment.

On Thursday, fifth- and sixth-graders from DePriest will be among those participating in the first lady’s event at McCormick Place. They’ll get to meet the celebrities, but some health experts doubt that will make a long-term difference in the children’s lives. For real change to occur, they said, it must include the entire family.

“Gabby Douglas is compelling … and she might be inspirational for some. But when they turn away from her, they will be stuck in the same environment they were in before,” said Vik Khanna, a St. Louis health and wellness consultant who designed a program for low-income New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina. “It’s also not enough to encourage change in school for six or seven hours a day when the rest of the day is in a home environment where the culture is inconsistent.”

Principal Watson, who grew up in a public housing development in Chicago, said she agrees that change should be a family effort. But when that’s not possible, schools must step in to do what they can.

“When I look at these children, I see me,” Watson said. “What’s not important at home is reflected in what’s important to the kids at school. We have to be the bridge. We’re making baby steps now.”

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