Apodaca: How we eat is indeed frightening

In keeping with the season, I'm going to tell a scary story.

This isn't your typical dark-and-stormy-night tale of horror. It's about monsters lurking in our kids' lunch boxes, sinister snacks living in our pantries and nutrition-less ghouls masquerading as meals.

At the risk of being a major spoilsport for harping about the importance of healthy eating right before Halloween, I nonetheless would like to point out some frightening statistics.

Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the United States in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The share of children aged 6 to 11 years who were obese ballooned from 7% in 1980 to 20% in 2008, while the portion of obese 12- to-19-year-olds went from 5% to 18% in the same period.

Obese youths are more likely to suffer from a lengthy menu of ailments, including high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems, and self-esteem issues. Over the long-term, obesity can lead to increased risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke and a long list of other illnesses.

Society as a whole suffers as well, due to the increased costs of treating obesity-related disease.

There have been many causes cited for rising obesity rates and other worrisome trends related to poor nutrition among our youths. They include more sedentary lifestyles, clever marketing of fat-laden fast food, sugary sodas and prepackaged snacks, and the weakening of traditions such as family dinners.

In our grab-it-and-go culture, many of us have lost the connection to fresh, wholesome, unprocessed food, while succumbing to reality-challenged advertising images of skinny models gobbling oversized burgers and French fries.

Nonetheless, when I met last week with three experts on childhood health and nutrition at Newport-Mesa Unified School District, my scary-story scenario began to take on a different flavor.

I had walked into the meeting armed with the above statistics, and ready for a grim discussion about the dismal state of childhood nutrition.

Instead, district Director of Nutrition Services Richard A. Greene, Operations Manager Geoff Ianniello and district nutritionist Pam Williams treated me to a passion-fueled talk about their quest to teach families how to eat well.

Yes, many families are woefully lacking in the healthy lifestyle department, they said, but a little knowledge can be a powerful thing when it comes to turning that around.

Indeed, they were so excited to talk about their nutrition programs that — well, let's just say I've never seen anyone get so worked up about the wonders of persimmons.

The trio was most encouraged by district programs that they believe are making inroads toward fostering healthier eating habits among local families. For example, using some of the $450,000 in federal grant money the district receives annually for nutrition education, they are reaching out to parents and children at some Costa Mesa schools to teach them about food, diet and exercise.

One facet of this effort, called the Parent Nutrition Institute, is a series of five workshops launched last year at Rea Elementary School. The program covers a variety of topics, from how to read food labels to meal planning. Ianniello and Williams were hoping for a turnout of 25 parents the first night; 85 showed up.

The program rotated to other schools, with attendance reaching about 350. This year, the district is hoping to get another 500 parents to sign up for the classes.

Another example is the district's participation in state program Harvest of the Month, which teaches students about the benefits of fresh produce by spotlighting one fruit or vegetable each month and designing various activities around that item. October featured root vegetables, November will highlight green beans, and December's focus will be kiwi fruit.

The kids get to taste the fresh produce at school, and learn recipes to take home to their parents.

Williams believes that programs such as these are having a positive impact, and she's been witness to tearful testimonials by parents who have shared their stories of success in improving their families' eating and exercise habits. Once, while visiting a local park, Williams was approached by a parent who told her, "I'm walking in this park because of you."

Yet Greene, Ianniello and Williams are realistic that change will likely be incremental.

"A lot of times we don't think about what we're eating," Williams said.

Her goal is to retrain students' brains so they're more likely to reach for a banana instead of a candy bar, less resistant to trying new types of food, and able to recognize the link between what they eat and how they feel.

"I think it's going to take constant attention and focus," Greene said. "It's going to be a long, slow, steady process."

Slow, maybe, but if the troubling trends in childhood obesity can be reversed, the story might not turn out quite so scary after all.

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Following up on polo players

Last week, I wrote about the fledgling national water polo team of Afghanistan, and its plans to visit Newport Beach in December for training and cultural outreach ("Apodaca: Water polo provides unlikely bridge between Newport, Afghanistan"). I've since heard from many people who were inspired by the team's quixotic dream of participating in the 2016 Olympic Games, and wanted to know how they could help.

Anyone wishing to offer assistance can e-mail courtney@afghanistanolympicdream.com, or visit the team's website, http://www.afghanistanwaterpolo.com.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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