“Play with your food!” Chef David Leathers enthuses in his big ole Southern drawl. “It’s fun!” He should know, being one of the foremost fruit and vegetable carvers in the world. Within the body of the man whose hands create banana octopi and squash monkeys—and, yes, Elvis-adorned watermelons—beats the heart of a passionate foe of childhood obesity. “It’s killing children. It may not kill them now, but it will later.”
It is estimated that 19 percent of children are now considered overweight, and studies say that nearly 50 percent of children in North America will be overweight by the year 2010. Childhood obesity creates chronic problems into adulthood—including diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. But the situation is far from hopeless.
Leathers has collaborated with Chefs for Humanity, a nonprofit organization founded in response to the movement begun in 2004 by Iron Chef Cat Cora. Chefs for Humanity provides nutrition education, hunger relief, and emergency and humanitarian aid to reduce hunger around the world. Chef Cora, along with her team of culinary professionals (and many volunteers with big hearts), served thousands of meals in Gulfport, Mississippi in 2006; the organization is currently developing strategies to rejuvenate hurricane-devastated Wawa Boom, a village in Nicaragua. Chefs for Humanity will be also be going to Zambia this year to assist a region that has suffered the ravages of floods in addition to its deep, endemic poverty.
There is a pretty impressive council of celeb chefs behind Chefs for Humanity—Ming Tsai of Simply Ming, Rick Bayless, Brian Duffy, Bradford Thompson, Robert Irvine of Dinner Impossible, and Bobby Flay of well, everything, to name just a few.
Chefs for Humanity has teamed up with WECAN! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition), an organization created by the National Institute of Health, and CMOM (Children’s Museum of Manhattan) to create the Every Kid CAN! Program, which develops fun and innovative strategies for getting kids involved with their own food choices. This program’s purpose is culinary education; the agenda is very hands-on, incorporating “unusual food tasting” complete with spit-towel, carving, and of course cooking! Kids and their parents learn to make grilled mini-paninis (choosing their own meats and veggies for grilling), pizzettes, salads, and whole-wheat banana pancakes.
“Some of my fondest memories were in my father’s restaurant kitchen in Mississippi. I remember being seven years old, standing on cans to reach the countertops, cutting two hundred pounds of onions in one weekend! It was great.” Leathers maintains that getting kids involved in cooking will give them much-needed skills for life. “It really makes me shake my head when I see kids who don’t know how to cook. I mean, eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds are living on ramen noodles! There’s no need for that.”
So what makes children so prone to obesity? Sorry, but it ain’t genetics. “Genetics plays a part in a minimum of cases. It’s lifestyle choices—bad eating habits, too much screen time on the TV or computer, and not being involved in their food.” The responsibility lies first with parents, but second with schools. “Fifty-four million kids go to school every day. Seventy-five percent of them eat at least one meal there. We have them for at least one meal a day—and that can make a difference too. Kids that eat better, focus better, and behave better.” But uninterrupted family eating time is vital. And not in front of the telly! Studies show that kids eat more when distracted by the boob tube. “As Americans we have forgotten how to cook and eat together. We’re a convenient nation now.”
Parents, teachers, heck, even baby-sitters can all get with the program. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer for the cooking classes currently in existence. In addition, Chefs for Humanity offers training programs for adults, so you can go out into your own neighborhoods and make a difference. So get cooking, and help our kids be healthy, happy humans. It’s a lot more fun than unwrapping a soggy old burger!
Photo of Chef Cat Cora courtesy of Chefs for Humanity