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George H. Lambert

It isn’t hard to find food in low-income urban neighborhoods. For a couple of bucks, you can feast on pizza, wings, burgers, buns or fries, and wash it down with 32-64 ounces of carbonated sugar water.

The food that poor people can afford in the United States leaves a lot to be desired. Foods rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and freshness are lacking. In some single-parent households or two-parent households where  people are working one or more jobs, speed and convenience prevail. And if deep-fried food and carbs are what the kids are demanding anyway, it’s only logical that that’s what ends up on the dinner plate. This approach avoids short term stress but has long term consequences.

The food is a cheap “quick fix”, but there’s a hidden price to a steady diet of fast food. Obesity is literally killing us. Among Blacks, heart disease and diabetes are the first and fifth leading cause of death, respectively.

I strongly believe that parents and guardians bear the responsibility for the health of their children, but as a community, there are practical solutions that can help make it easier to choose nutrition over convenience. These are measures that literally tip the scales.

  • An Early Start. There’s no secret to fighting obesity. All it takes is a well-balanced diet and regular exercise. However, the temptations of fast food and the tendency to “veg out” in front of the TV rather than eating veggies can be hard to resist. I admire First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative for recognizing that half the victory is making it fun for the little ones. Starting during earliest months and years is a proven way of getting on the path to a healthy future.
  • Slimming Down as a Family. A lot of families eat together. And eat and eat. As a consequence, they also get fat together. And nobody really notices because everyone around them is overweight, too. Weight loss is often framed as a personal challenge, but according to a recent book, the best outcomes stem from group efforts. The authors of Thinfluence maintain that families—and communities—can exert powerful positive and negative influences on each member’s individual health.
  • A Healthy Curriculum. Along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, our schools should be teaching healthy habits. The USDA’s Serving Up MyPlate curriculum, for example, offers classroom materials that help elementary school teachers integrate nutrition education into lesson plans. These lessons reinforce healthy habits developed in the home—habits that can last a lifetime. Your school should also have some semblance of an exercise program.
  • Community Activism. We don’t usually think of obesity as an issue to march in the streets about, but ask yourself: When I look around my neighborhood, do I see places to buy fresh green produce? (For example, if you’re near D.C.’s Woodbridge neighborhood, check out Good Food Market.) Or is there nothing but one fast food joint after another? Is there a gym nearby? Or are there only desolate playgrounds with broken-down equipment? Coming together as a community to encourage healthy business development is hard work, but it pays off for all of us.

If you yourself are overweight, please understand that I’m not judging you. You have every right to eat and drink as you choose. But if you decide to make a change in your life—beginning a healthy habit or ending an unhealthy one—you should know that your community is cheering you on. We need you to lead a long, healthy, productive life.

George H. Lambert, Jr. is the President and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League. He can be reached at twitter.com/GWUrbanLeague.