Chancellor Katehi: Combating Obesity is Critical to the Economic Health of the Central Valley

global-food-initiativeBy Leanna Sweha

Last week, UC President Janet Napolitano and UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi joined the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. to discuss new research by Brookings on the economic costs of obesity in the United States. Chancellor Katehi emphasized the role of UC Davis in curbing the obesity epidemic and its negative impacts on the economy of the Central Valley.

The Chancellor opened the session. She began by noting that the Central Valley faces some of the greatest impacts of obesity, primarily because it has some of the poorest communities in the state. She described the irony that, while farm workers directly participate in the production of agricultural products, they have limited access to fresh, high quality food. Instead, farm workers tend to rely on processed foods, which are more available and affordable but also high in fat and sugar. As a result, obesity has become an epidemic in these communities.

“We all know that obesity makes people sick. It destroys communities in many ways, making them less productive, and it has a great impact on the economies of these communities,” she said. This has a negative impact on businesses and the quality of schools, decreasing economic development and upward mobility.

Chancellor Katehi explained that the World Food Center is studying obesity from medical, public health and economic perspectives. “Obesity is not just a health issue but also a policy issue,” she said. UC Davis faculty are trying to understand obesity as an epidemic and help the state institute policies to eradicate it.

The Chancellor stated that because education and economic development are key missions of the university, the university must take actions to change the conditions that promote obesity. She noted that providing a college education to students from poor communities is part of the process. “Education and access to healthy food are absolutely critically connected,” she added.

President Napolitano gave the keynote address. She first reviewed the Brookings study findings. The study model revealed that the per capita lifetime societal costs – including medical and lost productivity – are over $92,000 higher for an individual with obesity than for a normal weight individual. Using this estimate, if all 12.7 million U.S. youth with obesity grow up to become obese adults, the societal costs over their lifetime may exceed $1.1 trillion. These findings are “sobering to say the least,” and “and a clarion call to action,” she said.

President Napolitano said there is much to be done on the public policy and public health front to manage successfully an issue like obesity. It will require collaboration and cooperation among state and federal governments, medical centers, public health boards, and a wide range of public and private organizations, including the food industry.

“Today I would like to submit that public research universities like UC can and will help lead the way as we grapple with this complex and considerable challenge.” She described the World Food Center as a model for research in obesity and one example of what the UC as a whole is doing to tackle obesity and other issues in the broader category of “food.”

She then described the UC’s Global Food Initiative and its one central mission point: To put the world on a pathway to feed itself in ways that are nutritious and sustainable. She gave several examples of UC research within the Global Food Initiative, including Alberto Aguilera, M.P.H., a Ph.D. student with the Graduate Group in Nutritional Biology at UC Davis.

Aguilera is doing research to prevent obesity among children of Mexican migrant workers in the Central Valley community of Firebaugh. He was inspired to do this research because he grew up in such a community and knows first-hand the struggles facing migrant worker parents. He is studying a new skin scanning technique to determine children’s fruit and vegetable consumption levels. He is using the data to develop a nutrition report card for parents. He is also working to recreate traditional Mexican recipes with greater nutritional value.

Leanna M Sweha, JD, has been a resident of Davis for 20 years.  As a young molecular biologist in a USDA lab working to engineer Roundup-resistant corn, she grew interested in sustainable agriculture.  Fascinated with the legal and policy issues of agricultural genetics, she became an attorney specializing in agricultural and natural resources law.  She has worked for the California Resources Agency and the UC Davis Office of Research.

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  1. Tia Will

    there is much to be done on the public policy and public health front to manage successfully an issue like obesity. It will require collaboration and cooperation among state and federal governments, medical centers, public health boards, and a wide range of public and private organizations, including the food industry.”

    I whole heartedly agree with this statement. And I believe that it is wise to extend this to the levels of government that determine our local policies. Now is not the time to take the stand that health is not a local, but only a county responsibility. Promoting the health of our community is the responsibility of everyone within the public realm whether that is the schools, the city, the county, the state and the federal governments. Appropriate policy changes at all levels were what was ultimately needed to change the trajectory of the health disaster of cigarette smoking in this country and it will be needed to change the trajectory of the health disaster that is obesity.

    Food is any substance[1] consumed to provide nutritional support for the body. It is usually of plant or animal origin, and contains essential nutrients, such as fatsproteinsvitamins, or minerals. Historically food was obtained through hunting, gathering and eventually through agriculture. 

    Today, most of our food is supplied by a broadly defined food industry. However, much of what is manufactured and marketed as “food” would not meet the above Wikipedia definition since much of what is manufactured does not provide “nutritional support” for the body in a balanced and healthful manner. One of the leading contributors to this problem of epidemic proportions is the soda and sugary beverage industry. As one example :

    The primary ingredients of Coca-Cola syrup include either high fructose corn syrup or sucrose derived from cane sugarcaramel colorcaffeinephosphoric acid,coca extractlime extract, vanilla, and glycerin. High fructose corn syrup or sucrose are overwhelmingly the major added ingredients: one 600 ml bottle (≈20.29 U.S. fl. oz.) of Coca Cola contains the approximate equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar.  ( Information from Wikipedia)
     
    One strategy for selling products that are dangerous ( cigarettes as a historical example) is to market them to children. Another strategy is to give away or provide the product at a discount in the hopes that future purchasers will either like,  or become sufficiently brand identified or habituated to the product, that they will continue to use that product rather than choosing something that might be less expensive, but potentially better for them ( drug samples provided to doctors as the historical example).
     
    One small step forward in combating our local obesity issue would be to move forward with the proposal for local restaurants to provide water or milk as the default beverages with their children’s meals. I see no reason for limiting the parent’s choice, effectively causing them to pay more if they want a healthy beverage rather than the preselected non nutritionally based  beverage for their child. 
    1. Miwok

      I see no reason for limiting the parent’s choice, effectively causing them to pay more if they want a healthy beverage rather than the preselected non nutritionally based  beverage for their child.

      I don’t see why it should be a “default option”. At a restaurant they always ask what you want, and the parent has the choice to choose. If you are saying a restaurant has no water or milk to give out, I am flabbergasted.

  2. Davis Progressive

    this piece turns what i would think about the wfc and such organizations almost on its head.  i think of these kinds of programs are a means to feed the world, i don’t general think about it in terms of a way to end obesity, but i guess its the different side of the same coin.

    1. Tia Will

      DP

      I think that you are right about two sides of the same coin. However, another analogy also arises for me. That of the two edged blade. While I appreciate the efforts of researchers at institutions such as the proposed WFC to make progress in “feeding the world”, I am also very concerned about what will be considered as part of the diet supplied. I am very concerned about the Mars company, whose products are not “food” but rather “food products” some of which have minimal nutritional value but are actually candy and sweets, as a major partner for the university in this endeavor. Many of the products of the Mars company, which I highly doubt they are going to stop producing do far more harm than good. This is basically like arguing that Coke, or Pepsi, or Dr. Pepper are nutritional beverages because they contain water which is an element needed for life. These products do not produce nutrition, but they do promote obesity. How to decouple the negative impact from their products from their financial ties to the university I do not know, but I do think that this issue needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

       

  3. TrueBlueDevil

    I thought it was interesting that a critical issue here wasn’t covered until the last paragraph, the high and rising obesity rate for people of Mexican decent.

    I agree with much of what Tia says. I’m also not so sure that immediate go to of “high prices” is the problem for obesity – there are so many other important factors that don’t require millions in research. The culture has recently changed in Mexico (reports say their obesity rate is now tops ours), and we apparently have the same problem in the Central Valley. Review a few articles and you’ll see these issues…

    Soda consumption / high fructose corn syrup – a friend called it the devil.

    A large bag of beans is not expensive, but they take time to prepare.

    Mexican families have taken the same path as American families, “treat foods” like tacos, tamales, or burgers – have gone from a once a week treat to oftentimes a daily staple. “What Mexicans wryly call Vitamin T — the tacos, tamales and tostadas that anchor their diet — underlies much of the problem. Once reserved for special occasions, the carbohydrate and lard-loaded dishes now get gobbled daily.”

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mexico-takes-title-of-most-obese-from-america/

    Exercise / lack of exercise wasn’t mentioned.

     

     

     

    1. Tia Will

      TBD

      Very interesting link. One paragraph particularly hit me.

      Mexican officials forged a national agreement three years ago with unions, food producers and others aimed at lowering the consumption of junk food. But the effort was weakened by lobbying from the agribusiness industry, UN expert De Shutter claimed.”

      Our agribusiness industry is just that. It is not largely concerned with the nutritional value of its products but rather with how they can sell the most. This is one very large part of my concern about the partnership between Mars and the WFC. I see the stated mission of the Mars Company to maximize the production and sales of “food products” as in at least partial conflict with the mission of the WFC which is to “feed the world” presumably with products that will enhance, not detract from the health of the served populations.

       

  4. DavisBurns

    Artificial light at night is associated with obesity.  Mice fed a low calorie diet and exposed to light at night gained more weight than mice fed a high fat diet and exposed to darkness at night.  It’s not just about calories or fat or sugar laden drinks.

    1. Tia Will

      DB

      I agree with your point. There are many areas of concern. Circadian rhythms, lack of exercise, reliance on our automobiles for almost all but the shortest of trips, the ubiquity of “foods” that have no ( or minimal ) nutritional value, the choice of passive vs active recreation in the form of screen time over social and community interaction. However, I see this as a cause for inclusiveness and a comprehensive approach, not as a means to belittle or minimize any of the contributing factors.

      I would very much like to hear from others about what they see as contributing factors.

      1. Frankly

        There are only three primary contributing factors to obesity:

        1. Genetics or other physiological factors.

        2. Eating too much, or eating too much of the wrong foods.

        3. Not exerting enough calorie-burning activity to offset the intake.

        The primary causes are the last two.  The primary solutions for them is really clear and straightforward.

        1. Don Shor

          The primary solutions for them is really clear and straightforward.

          Marketing is certainly a major factor in why people eat “too much of the wrong foods.”

        2. TrueBlueDevil

          Fried food also tastes good. Where does freedom of choice begin or end?

          I’m not a Big Government guy, but I don’t see why we can’t stop subsidizing the cost of high-fructose corn syrup, and I might even be for stricter measures than that.

          The first time I was in Europe I was talking with a local and they saw someone across the street, and they said “…like that American over there.” I asked them, “How can you tell they’re American? The camera, shoes, the mannerisms?”

          He replied, “Americans are fat.” Yuck.

        3. Frankly

          Marketing is certainly a major factor in why people eat “too much of the wrong foods.

          I think advertising certainly contributes to people eating too much of the wrong foods, but I would not go so far as to blame advertising.  There is a ton of information out there telling people what is good for them and what is bad for them… they are making a choice.

          I view eating to be like spending.  Your body is the bank and when you eat too much of the wrong food, you are basically going into a health deficit.  It is like spending more than you have or earn and going into monetary deficit.  You can make the case that advertising causes people to spend too much, but again I think it only contributes a pressure… it does not force anyone to actually spend.

          There are long-term consequences for living a life that constantly adds up debts.  Why not just make the right choices to have a balanced life?  More importantly, why does anyone expect society or government to be successful saving people from their own bad choices (other than education about consequences)?

      2. TrueBlueDevil

        Tia, everything. I’m told Europe is following our trend, but I didn’t see it when I was there a decade ago for an extended stay across multiple countries. There are some very basic items.

        They eat fast food as a once-a-week or twice-a-month treat, not an everyday meal.

        They don’t commute two hours a day, and don’t eat in their cars.

        They eat smaller portions; lots of walking.

        They prefer quality food over quantity.

        They will park half way across an empty parking lot, and walk to the store. We seek out the closest spot!

        They choose the stairs, not the elevator.

        We are a rich country, there are still countries in the EU that are poor (like Greece).

        They don’t have a 7/11 in every neighborhood; grocery stores close early. German stores largely close on Sundays, by law, and close early at night, by law.

        We work much harder and longer, I think we often reward ourselves for food for these efforts – chips, Taco Bell, popcorn, etc.  They are walking Fifi or planing their 5-week vacation. They do have a better life balance, but less material goods.

        The French walk to the metro; then from the metro to work; then they walk at lunch to get a cafe; then they walk back to the metro; then they walk home. They then walk up 4 flights to their tiny flat, to walk Fifi in the evening, and maybe have a baguette and at a cafe. This walking to and from the metro happens in London, Berlin, and many other large cities. They can easily log 2 miles a day just walking to the metro. This is before they actually “exercise” or take the evening stroll like it Rome… what a great city.

        Some smoke.

        1. Topcat

          The French walk to the metro; then from the metro to work; then they walk at lunch to get a cafe; then they walk back to the metro; then they walk home. They then walk up 4 flights to their tiny flat, to walk Fifi in the evening, and maybe have a baguette and at a cafe. This walking to and from the metro happens in London, Berlin, and many other large cities. They can easily log 2 miles a day just walking to the metro.

          And in Davis the parents apparently feel that the kids can’t walk or bike to school the way that little Topcat did when he was a child.  Go by any school in Davis on a school day morning or afternoon and you’ll see a line of cars with parents driving their little angels to school.

        2. TrueBlueDevil

          Topcat, I feel you. Some of this may have been driven by the media sensationalist portal of crime. As a parent it is tough, if you see one young child get kidnapped who lives 5 miles or 5 blocks from you, how difficult is it to ignore that and let your children walk to school? I walked a mile or more when I was young, but I think the movement from a 1-car to a typical 2-car household also aided that.

        3. Frankly

          The French are also dealing with severe budget problems and national debt.  Per citizen GDP is on the lower side for old industrialized counties.  All that free time to walk and have 2 hour lunches and 3 hour dinners has meant less time for making products and services to sell.  One can easily admire the French for many things but everything needs to be considered in context of sustainability.  The French system is not sustainable.

  5. Alan Miller

    farm workers . . .  have limited access to fresh . . .  food. Instead, farm workers tend to rely on processed foods . . .

    Really?  Is this substantiated?  What I have noted as I have traveled the back country of the San Joaquin Valley is that the housing for the farm workers is often surrounded by gardens of fresh vegetables and cactus, and often some chickens ad larger creatures, because it’s cheap food.

    Is this claim being accurately captured in the stats, or is this like when you say someone is poor because they appear that way to the IRS, but actually they have a spectacular cash business and not only earn a substantial living, but get to take advantage of  programs for the “poor”.

     

  6. Tia Will

    Frankly

    One can easily admire the French for many things but everything needs to be considered in context of sustainability.  The French system is not sustainable.”

    Neither is a system that depends for its existence on never ending material growth and expansion. What is needed, in my opinion is a healthy balance between commerce and non commercial values including the protection of the environment, a needs based rather than conspicuous consumption based economy, valuing health over convenience, valuing allocation of time over allocation of money, valuing real contribution over inflated salaries and bonuses for work of questionable value, valuing objects which add joy and value to our lives rather than simply being subsitutes , status symbols and distractions from our dissatisfaction with our lives.

    It may be that France has gone too far in one direction. I do not know since I do not live there. However, since I do live in the US, I can say with some certainty that we have gone too far in the consumption, materialistic based model which I believe is also unsustainable.

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