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Dear Michelle Obama: If We Want to Curb Childhood Obesity, Sesame Street Is Not Going to Cut It

Can a licensing deal between Sesame Street and the Produce Marketing Association truly improve childhood health? Maybe, but grassroots solutions already exist.
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Michelle Obama and Elmo. Official White House Photo.

Official White House Photo.

Can Sesame Street characters really transform the way kids eat? If a press conference last week was any indication, then Michelle Obama seems to think so.

What good is an Elmo sticker if a child is stuck in a food desert?

As part of Let's Move—a program she launched to help reduce the rate of childhood obesity—the First Lady announced at a press conference last Thursday, with the help from Sesame characters Elmo and Rosita, a new partnership designed to promote healthful eating among kids: the two-year partnership includes the Sesame Workshop, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), and the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA).

From the White House blog:

The agreement allows PMA's community of growers, suppliers and retailers to utilize the strength and influence of the Sesame Street brand without a licensing fee, using characters like Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita and Abby Cadabby to help deliver messages about fresh fruits and vegetables. Sesame Street characters may be on produce in stores as early as mid-2014.

Obama referenced a study that found children were nearly twice as likely to choose apples instead of cookies when Elmo stickers were placed on the fruit. According to the press release, this entertainment/marketing/food industry collaboration will support "making those healthy choices a little easier for busy parents and families…"

Many see Obama's campaign to improve childhood nutrition via marketing as a crucial first step in addressing the glaring inadequacies of our food system. Others expressed concern about it. Author Marion Nestle had "mixed feelings," she wrote on her blog last Wednesday. "I've long been on record as opposed to marketing anything to kids, whether good, bad, or indifferent. Marketing is not education."

Because of our food system's complex socioeconomic challenges, Let's Move might generate deeper changes in the way kids eat by learning from the successes of more grassroots programs (after all, what good is an Elmo sticker if a child is stuck in a food desert?). These efforts are serving communities all throughout the United States, and although their scale and budget may be smaller than the Produce Marketing Association's, their outcomes may be more meaningful and longer lasting. Most of them also help build resilience by placing the power to create food within the community itself.

Here's a shortlist of some grassroots initiatives already helping families and communities eat healthier (and more sustainably).

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1. Garden to cafeteria programs

Collaboration between public schools and community gardens have been—forgive me—sprouting up all over the country. From California to New York, public schools and local communities have been teaming up to feed children and adolescents wholesome, locally grown food, and educate them about gardening, nutrition, and the natural world.

Urban agriculture has become a vital resource for households that lack land to grow or access to fresh, healthy food.

According to Grow To Learn NYC, many school children in urban areas have few chances to connect to nature, and are suffering increasing rates of obesity and diabetes due to poor nutrition and lack of physical activity.

Programs that teach kids how to build and maintain gardens can reverse that trend, and have shown positive results: San Francisco's Urban Sprouts reports on their website that 91 percent of students who participated in their program "care more about the environment and nature," and 68 percent "increased their nutrition knowledge." Other studies reveal a connection between this kind of interaction with nature and emotional resiliency, not to mention improvements in academic performance.

2. The urban garden revolution

Urban gardens seem to be everywhere, from the rooftop to the curbside, and the movement behind them takes its power from the ordinariness of these places; anyone can create a garden and grow his or her own food, not just rural farmers or property-abundant suburbanites. Urban agriculture has become a vital resource for households that lack land to grow or access to fresh, healthy food.

It's a movement that's as diverse as our cities. In California, LA Green Grounds installs public gardens in South Central L.A. free of charge. Alleycat Acres, in Seattle, works with private landowners to cultivate farms throughout the city that benefit whole neighborhoods.

3. Food desert deliveries

Food deserts, in which it's nearly impossible for residents to get their hands on healthy food, plague a disturbing number of communities. Where do we start looking for a solution? How about with the Healthy Neighborhood Stores Alliance, an Oakland-based "effort to incorporate produce into corner stores that typically stock only liquor, canned goods, frozen and packaged foods, and a few household appliances," according to Oakland North.

The group was started four years ago, and works with corner-store owners to help them offer more nutritious produce to local residents. Understood in the context of food deserts, that's huge; after all, the founder of LA Green Grounds says he had to drive 45 minutes from his home in order to find such food.

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In Milwaukee, food justice leader Will Allen started an urban farming project called Growing Power, which includes a store—the only one for miles—that offers fresh produce, free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, and homegrown honey. The farm also delivers more than 300 baskets of fresh, seasonal food to "more than 20 agencies, community centers, and other sites around Milwaukee," helping to supply healthier options where existing stores do not.

4. Farmers markets

We're all familiar with this trend. Regional and local markets have been burgeoning in cities and towns for several years. But often the clientele is affluent and can easily buy fresh produce wherever they choose. What really has helped families access better nutrition at farmers markets, however, is not simply the existence of them but the acceptance of financial assistance at them. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamp Program, has allowed low-income households to partake in fresh, local, and organic produce, often in the convenience of their own neighborhoods.

5. The revival of Home Economics

Like many of  domestic arts once seen as either frivolous or oppressive (depending on one's privilege), Home Economics is experiencing a resurrection, at least in national discussions about food and nutrition. Along with the resurgence of knitting, home gardening, and scratch cooking, Home Ec is inspiring Americans who have grown frustrated with consumerism and the subsequent dependencies it has created. They want to get back to basics, DIY-style. And it's not just them: education and food reformers agree that we need to learn basic skills, like cooking and budgeting.

In her Boston Globe piece " Bring back home ec!" journalist Ruth Graham writes:

One solution to these 21st-century problems sounds surprisingly retro: a revival of home economics class. The words "home economics" likely conjure visions of future homemakers quietly whisking white sauce or stitching rickrack onto an apron. But to a handful of people thinking big about these problems, they evoke something different: A forward-thinking new kind of class that would give a generation of young people—not just women, but everyone—the skills to shop intelligently, cook healthily, manage money, and live well.

Home Ec was described by some second-wave feminists as the "enemy" to women's rights, but this time around the program would more distinctly serve as a public health initiative than as a way to keep women in the kitchen.


Erin Sagen

Erin Sagen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Erin is a recent graduate of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @erin_sagen.

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