The Other 60 Percent

Time to turn the tide on obesity, expert warns

HIGHLANDS RANCH – Nutrition expert Dr. David Katz paints a dire picture of a generation that’s literally being weighed down by a burden too heavy to carry.

Some tidbits from his “Feet, Forks and the Fate of Our Children” presentation Wednesday night at Rock Creek High School:

Type II Diabetes – once commonly known as “adult-onset diabetes” – is now being routinely diagnosed in children as young as 8. Teen-agers are needing coronary bypass operations. Chronic diseases of mid-life are being transformed into juvenile scourges. And if current trends continue, the percentage of overweight or obese Americans will hit 100% within 40 years. As a nation, we are projected to spend $340 billion annually on obesity-related ailments by 2018.

“The peril with regard to the epidemic of obesity in children and the related chronic disease is quite dire,” Katz told a group of parents and students who turned out for the presentation. “The effect of eating badly and lack of physical activity will cost our children more years of life than the combination of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use. Some say our children will have shorter life spans than their parents.”

“But as with all clouds, there’s a silver lining,” he said. “We don’t need to have a great biomedical advance or the next Nobel Prize to fix this problem. We simply have to apply knowledge we already have. Using what we already know about a short list of behaviors we can control, we can reduce the chronic disease burden by 80 to 90 percent…The levers are in our hands. They’re in our feet and our forks and our fingers.”

Katz is president and founder of the Turn the Tide Foundation, a Connecticut-based organization that is developing multiple strategies for schools and families trying to reverse the unhealthy trend toward obesity in children and teenagers. The foundation is trying to figure out just how to get kids to eat right and exercise more, and how to get parents – who often are struggling with weight problems of their own – to take the situation more seriously.

“People say where there’s a will there’s a way,” said Katz. “I don’t believe that’s true. We have to both cultivate the will and pave the way. And one way to cultivate will is for people to realize that they’re endangering their children.”

Katz, a physician, professor and director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University, is a nationally renowned columnist who regularly writes about nutrition for everyone from The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine and Men’s Health. He’s a heavy hitter who normally commands a $25,000 speaking fee.

But Susan Beane, the outgoing chairwoman of the Health Advisory Council for Douglas County Schools, is nothing if not persuasive. After hearing Katz speak last year in Denver, she cajoled him into coming back to Colorado and speaking in Douglas County for free.

“He’s like the Springsteen of nutrition,” said Beane, who has chaired the council for the past three years. “He’s constantly doing research, and he really has a wonderful plan to turn around the situation we find ourselves in.”

Douglas County School District is serious about improving the health of its students and staff. “We intend to be the healthiest school district in the country by 2015,” said interim superintendent Steve Herzog.

This week, the district kicked off a  healthy schools competition that includes a pedometer challenge to reward teams who log the most daily steps, a “food environment” challenge to reward schools who make it easier to make healthy food choices and harder to make bad ones, and a “Challenge of the Day” activity.

Beane says more innovative proposals will soon be rolled out by the Health Advisory Council. “One of our members is focused on sleep,” she said. “There’s been a lot of study on rolling back school start times. It may be easier for some people to have the kids start school earlier in the morning, but it’s not in the best interests of the kids.”

Katz promotes three strategies developed by Turn the Tide Foundation: the school-based Nutrition Detectives that teaches elementary children how to make smart food choices; the ABC for Fitness program, which includes ways to build in brief physical activity bursts into every classroom throughout the day without using up instructional time; and Nu-val Nutrition Quality Labeling, a supermarket-based food ranking system that gives a nutrition score from 1 to 100 to more than 45,000 food products.

He also praised LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit organization committed to reducing obesity in Colorado by promoting healthy eating and active living. Just this week, Live Well Colorado released a Food Policy Blueprint that identifies the most pressing needs and opportunities to strengthen access to healthy foods in the state.

These and other programs are among the “sandbags” that Katz says America needs to hold back the flood of obesity-related health problems. “If we do enough things right, and build them one on top of another, then the levee will hold,” he said.

Katz preaches a no-guilt gospel about the path to health. “If you are struggling with your weight, it is not your fault,” he says. “The environment is not of your devising. Don’t tell me there’s some epidemic lack of willpower.”

He took the nation’s food industry to task for misleading labeling and for its aggressive promotion – especially toward children – of high-calorie nutrient-poor foods. “The food industry needs to be regulated,” he said.

But equally important is a sea-change in society’s approach to food, he said. Cultural values need to shift.

“Plate cleaning is a cultural anachronism,” he said. “If a child has the good sense to stop eating when he’s full, pat him on the back!”  Likewise, all-you-can-eat buffets need to disappear, along with bake sales.

He says efforts to find a “cure” for obesity – a pill to keep us slim – seem doomed to failure because putting on weight in the midst of plenty is what humans are genetically designed to do. For most of human history, that’s been a survival mechanism.

“For most of history, calories were hard to get and physical activity was unavoidable,” Katz said. “Now, physical activity is hard to get and calories are unavoidable.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.