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Mississippi Wages Fried Food Fight Against Childhood Obesity

May 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As First Lady Michelle Obama implements a national plan to end the U.S.'s childhood obesity epidemic, Betty Ann Bowser looks at the battle being waged in Mississippi against the fried foods that have become traditional staples in the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of obesity, we turn next to a campaign in the U.S. to reduce the problem among children. That’s a signature issue for first lady Michelle Obama.

Yesterday, she made a public recommendation — made public recommendations from a federal task force on how to tackle the epidemic. She called for government help in reducing sugar in children’s diets, increasing the number of fruits and vegetables they eat, working to open larger grocery stores in under-served areas known as food deserts, and boosting the number of kids in physical education classes.

The first lady said those goals were achievable.

MICHELLE OBAMA, first lady: We just need everyone to do their part. And it’s going to take everyone. No one gets off the hook on this one, from government to schools, corporations to nonprofits, all the way down to families sitting around their dinner table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has been looking into how one state with a big problem is trying to make some big changes.

Here is the first of two reports she will file from Mississippi.

The Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The state of Mississippi is doing battle with one of its most cherished culinary traditions, fried food. And front line in this war against fat is the state’s public schools.

Kids in Mississippi are the most obese in the nation. So, in January, using federal and private money, 94 of the state’s 1,055 schools got rid of the food fryers in their cafeterias, and replaced them with special combination steam ovens that don’t use any kind of cooking oil.

Out went the deep-fat fried chicken and pork chops. In came potatoes the look like french fires, but are now baked, instead of cooked in fat. The move didn’t sit well with a lot of the teenagers at M.S. Palmer High School in the Mississippi Delta town of Marks.

What we heard from students Laquon Smith and Brandi Thompson was typical.

LAQUON SMITH, student, M.S. Palmer High School: It’s just — it’s nasty, just nasty. I don’t like it.

BRANDI THOMPSON, student, M.S. Palmer High School: I understand the part about us being healthy, but the food they cook, we don’t eat, because everybody can’t cooked baked food the same. And it just don’t taste right.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Obesity is not just a Mississippi problem. The CDC says 30 percent of all American children between 2 and 19 are too heavy or obese, triple the number of 30 years ago.

And according to a new report published this month, the percentage of obese girls increased more than twice as much as it did for boys among middle and high school kids. And between 2003 and 2007, black and Hispanic kids were twice as likely as their white counterparts to be overweight and obese.

But nowhere are the numbers more sobering than in Mississippi, where 44 percent of kids aged 10-17 are considered overweight or obese, compared to nearly 32 percent nationwide. That extra weight puts them at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, cancer, and other causes of premature death when they grow up.

DR. LAWRENCE COUNTS, Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services Center: I have seen numerous patients that have had a lot of ill effects from carrying too much weight. It over — overlaps into a lot of diabetes and hypertension, high cholesterol.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Lawrence Counts is an internist at a community center in nearby Clarksdale, where some obese kids go for treatment. He says some of them develop serious medical problems as early as the teen years.

DR. LAWRENCE COUNTS: I have seen them progress to actually end stage renal disease. I have seen them progress to actually have a heart attack at the age of 28. And that’s hard to imagine, a 25, 28-year-old having a heart attack, but I have patients that are like that. And that’s scary.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s estimated more than 50 percent of obese children will become obese in adulthood. Last year alone, treating adult obesity-related illnesses cost near $147 billion.

Mississippi already has the highest rate of obese adults in the nation. It’s a problem those who serve as role models struggle with, like Kirkpatrick Elementary School principal Suzanne Walton in Clarksdale.

SUZANNE WALTON, principal, Kirkpatrick Elementary School: I have been diagnosed obese. My husband has just been diagnosed diabetic. And so, together, we’re changing the way that we eat and prepare foods. And we both can tell the difference already.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Walton says she will do whatever it takes to promote her kids’ health. She has won grants from several foundations to pay for this playground exercise equipment and to bring in a yoga teacher twice a week.

Students are also screened for body mass index, or BMI, which determines what a healthy weight is for each child.

MAN: And we just need to work on it a little bit, so we can knock your — the number down, and then you will be more healthier.

SUZANNE WALTON: We are beginning to see a small difference. I think it’s going to take some time, but I think we will — eventually, we will make a difference with these children.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Kirkpatrick isn’t the only school making the effort. In 2007, Mississippi passed a law requiring public schools to provide 45 minutes of health education instruction and 150 minutes of physical activity each week for grades K-8. Until then, gym class had been optional.

And lower-calorie, lower-fat foods are replacing some of the high-starch lunchroom staples. But food service managers in poor counties like Quitman have a hard time finding a way to bring the more expensive fresh fruits and vegetables into their cafeterias.

And this is what Walton and other community leaders are up against. We visited this buffet nearby. It featured home-style Southern cuisine, fried chicken and pork chops, vegetables cooked in bacon fat, hot cornbread and rolls slathered in butter.

DR. AL RAUSA, Mississippi State Department of Health: Culturally, this is fat heaven. If it’s not greased or cooked in fat or fried, it’s not edible.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Al Rausa is the state’s health officer for 18 counties in Northwest Mississippi.

DR. AL RAUSA: Today, you know, we have an abundance of processed food. In the whole United States, our country has — each individual has 3,500 calories available every day. That’s what we have in food in the pipeline. And we only need 1,200 for what we do. It’s devastating, if you constantly consume excess calories. And most of those are going to come from the processed food that are rich in calories.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: More than 97 percent of children in Quitman County and surrounding areas come from families that have incomes so low, their kids qualify for the federal government’s free school breakfast and lunch programs. That means two of their daily meals are eaten at school.

WOMAN: I stay within my abilities.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Deloris Clayton is the health teacher at Palmer High School.

DELORIS CLAYTON, health teacher, M.S. Palmer High School: You have got to be honest. This is the only food our kids get is here at school. You may not believe it, but it’s not always at home for them. And I have heard kids say, well, I will just eat at school. You know, they may not like even what they have at home. And some of them just don’t have it, period.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But some kids are trying to change. Seventeen-year-old Victoria Crawford is a junior at Palmer High. She’s dropped two clothing sizes since she started paying attention to her diet.

VICTORIA CRAWFORD, Student, M.S. Palmer High School: I feel great. I can — I can — I like — I just walk and I enjoy it, because I didn’t even like to be outside in the sun, or just because it would be too hot or it would just wear me down. But now I just love being out more than I used to.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Victoria got the whole family into the act, including her grandmother, 63-year-old Freddie Johnson, who does most of the family’s cooking.

FREDDIE JOHNSON, grandmother: And I went to the doctor, like, in January. And I went back again in March, I had lost 11 pounds. I said, wow, I like this. And it made me feel good. And you know, I have more energy and stuff like that. I get around better. My back don’t bother me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mrs. Johnson also no longer needs medication to control her high blood pressure.

FREDDIE JOHNSON: If we just start here, and by Victoria getting our weight down, and myself, at the age I am, getting my weight down, and then — and seeing how active I am, somebody else going to catch on, too.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But, despite a changing tide in this one household and in schools across the state, health officials acknowledge their war against fat is going to take time. It will be an uphill climb.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Betty Ann’s next story looks at so-called food deserts in Mississippi, where large grocery stores are few and far between.