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Community Traditions and Childhood Obesity

By Joanne Lee on September 9th, 2015

Visits to my childhood home in Hawai’i offer opportunities to reflect. I grew up as an overweight child, and my parents and I struggled to find practical and sustainable solutions. Having worked in the healthy communities field for more than a decade, I now see my childhood community through a different lens. During a recent visit, I noted old and new infrastructure as well as social and cultural practices that affect a child’s ability to eat healthy and be active.

I wondered, does a child in my community today have a better chance of living at a healthy weight than I did?

The 1970s were marked by significant changes in the eating habits of Americans. The term “fad diet” was coined, and the popularity of programs like Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem skyrocketed. There was an influx of new food products into the market, including sugar substitutes, microwavable and other convenience foods. Nutrition was a fairly young science and was focused more on immediate solutions. We now know that adopting long-term healthy eating habits is the most effective dietary approach to addressing obesity. So, when I visited one of the weekly farmers’ markets in Hawai’i last month, I was excited by the tremendous variety of fresh and locally-sourced produce, and by how many community members were drawn to the market and engaged with the farmers.

As a child, I also struggled to be physically active on a routine basis. Both of my parents worked full-time while raising four children, and juggling those demands made the ease of using cars appealing for many families. During one of my recent visits, I walked the routes from my childhood home to key destinations, like the grocery store and elementary school, to which my family typically drove. It was eye-opening to discover that they are only about a mile away. I also noticed that sidewalks and crosswalks that existed back then still remain. I was encouraged to see people walking and using public transportation, but like in many communities, much more can be done to deal with a car-dominant culture and create physical environments that encourage active transportation.

In addition to food and activity environments, my social environment as a child was heavily influenced by cultural traditions, which included those of specific ethnic groups that migrated to the islands. I now see how those traditions influenced the way I ate and moved as a child. Food was and still is central to most social interactions and an important part of a gift-giving culture. This is reinforced through customs like taking a food gift anytime you visit someone’s house (regardless of the nature or length of the visit) and, as a host, preparing more than enough in order to give plates for guests to take home. A child in Hawai’i today likely still struggles to navigate the abundance of food in social interactions. During my return visits, I now suggest other ways to connect with family. Initially, it drew some blank looks when I suggested we do something other than eat! However, it’s led to discovering common areas of interest—like swimming with my aunt and exploring the local nature park with my brother—and connecting on a deeper level.

It seems that a child in Hawai’i today has more support to eat healthy and be active. I’m also encouraged by the growing attention in the healthy communities field to address the social environment as part of sustainable childhood obesity solutions. In future visits to my childhood home, I plan to continue learning about how social supports affect children—and also look forward to going on more hikes with my brother.

Photo credit: “Quinault Rainforest” (CC) Lee LeFever.

Joanne Lee

Senior Project Director

Adventurous strategist, cross-cultural explorer, and human and animal welfare champion.