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When I used to take photographs in long past St. Patrick’s Day parades, I rarely saw grossly overweight high school band marchers. Then last month after a thirty-year hiatus I decided to try out my new digital camera and shoot the parade again. Right off the bat I had problems in the bright sunlight seeing the marchers in my viewfinder. As they approached closer and closer, they kept merging into large clumps of black shapes making it impossible to precisely identify anything I was shooting till I replayed the images. At which point I saw a disturbingly large percent of obese teenage band members filling many of the frames. Which probably shouldn’t have surprised me, since over 67% of US adults are overweight or obese.

But to see so many teenagers in the parade carrying all that extra poundage when they should have been nearing their physical prime was troubling. And many of them definitely appeared to be struggling to keep up with their more svelte classmates. The parade route covers well over two and a half miles, a long distance for out of shape couch potatoes. The pained expression on the scarlet, sweaty face of one boy who was maybe twelve or thirteen suggested he was having an epic struggle with his obese body to keep it moving forward — to not throw in the towel no matter how badly he was hurting.

After this unsettling experience, I give a High Five to Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution project. For years information on healthy nutrition has been available everywhere. But far too many Americans have ignored it and continued to chow down on fatty, heavily sweetened and chemically concocted foods as rates of diabetes, strokes and heart disease have relentlessly risen. Apparently we needed an outsider like Englishman Oliver, a big time foodie not married to the food industry in this country, to shake up the status quo and get our kids off the junk food train. He has already fought this battle in English schools and after daunting early resistance, succeeded in banning junk food from schools and getting the government to fund healthy meals for kids.

From the start of Oliver’s project in Huntington, West Virgina, the most unhealthy city in the USA with an off the chart obesity rate and matching chronic diseases, it was an even tougher uphill battle. Oliver’s first shock was observing kids eating school breakfasts of pizza and sugared milk. Next he brought some vegetables to a classroom of six-year-olds and asked them to identify a cauliflower, a beet and an eggplant. Not one kid had a clue. Nor could a single child identify a common every day potato, or — say it ain’t so — a tomato! Whereas the English kids at least knew what that red vegetable was.

As part of the potato ignorance picture: when Oliver asked the fuming school cafeteria head honcho, whose face tightened with Oliver’s every word, when they were going to start peeling the potatoes for lunch’s mashed potatoes, she scoffed at his dim-wit question. They didn’t use potatoes she informed him. They used “a cooks best friend”. A dry concoction poured from a box, the cement-like Potato Pearls were mixed with warm water and beaten like the devil to keep the texture from turning grainy.

When he visited a Huntington mother and her three children, all seriously overweight, she deep-fried a batch of chocolate covered doughnuts to show him what they had eaten for breakfast. Asked if the family ever ate greens or salad with their mostly deep fried meals, she seemed startled by the question, before replying, “No.”

Later examined by a doctor, her son, an obese sixth grader, showed early symptoms of diabetes. If he develops the disease, his treatment will become part of the health care and lost productivity costs of America’s obese epidemic, totaling an estimated one hundred billion bucks a year.

The person who publicly attacked Oliver the loudest was a belligerent Huntington radio personality, who demanded to know who had made Oliver “King,” and where did Oliver get off foisting his lettuce diet on their city. This very vocal critic changed his tune when Oliver invited him to meet the town mortuary director and view the jumbo-size caskets (double the size of normal caskets) that were necessary to bury many of Huntington’s obese residents. Like fat fliers who have to buy two airline seats to fly, obese corpses and their super size coffins also needed two graves for their final send-off. Because of their immense, steel reinforced weight, these caskets also required forklifts to haul them to heavy weight trucks (hearses were too lightweight) for their final trip to the cemetery.

Yes, Jamie Oliver’s antics on his Food Revolution television shows were sometimes over the top and silly: that pea costume, yikes, and plates of healthy food and bottles of milk thrown into a slimy pile will look just as disgusting as plates of greasy fare and bottles of soda — but there was nothing silly about his message. Unless this country wakes up and dramatically changes its food habits and sedentary ways, today’s children will live shorter lives than their parents. And lovely red tomatoes will be heading closer to the dinosaur track.

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