A letter to first lady
Michelle Obama

Written by

Melissa Pasanen, Correspondent


8:02 AM, Jun. 30, 2011

Dear Mrs. Obama,

Last spring, I spent a couple hours at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf observing people pick up their weekly allowance of groceries.
It was not the first time I’d been to a food shelf during a decade of writing about food and agriculture for this newspaper and other publications, but I was struck that particular visit by the number of children accompanying their parents.

There was a 4-year-old who ran over and picked up a box of corn flakes, hugging it to his chest, and a little girl with huge eyes who stayed shyly glued to her mother’s side. A tow-headed boy stood in front of the fresh fruits and vegetables. After his mom gave him the go-ahead, he carefully selected one apple and one orange and placed them in his family’s box.

In anticipation of your visit to Vermont today and your high-profile “Let’s Move” program against childhood obesity, I’ve been recalling images like these and reflecting on what I’ve seen, heard and learned in Vermont. Stories about food are rarely just about the food.

Youngsters in healthy cooking classes slice and dice with the bravado of Food Network stars but might quietly add, as one teenager said, “My mom works a lot. Now I can help her.”

A recently arrived refugee tending a community gardening plot looks at her bright-eyed toddler and says, “When my children eat the food I bring home from the garden, I feel comfortable because I farmed it and I know where it comes from.”

A dad in a homeless shelter takes a break from learning how to make a healthy Asian noodle dish and admits, “It’s hard to cook for your kids when you don’t have a home. We eat a lot of McDonald’s, Burger King and pizza.”

Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that although they may seem like polar opposites, hunger and obesity are often evil twins, flip sides of the same problem.

“Lack of access to healthy food is a major cause of both malnutrition and obesity,” says Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, an education and advocacy organization working to end hunger and malnutrition.

Although Vermont’s largely rural landscape may appear to be a land of plenty (especially in summer and fall), it also comes with a high cost of living, sometimes overwhelming transportation challenges and limited shopping options in small or remote communities, Parisi says. Ironically, just like in the urban inner city, it is often easier and cheaper to buy a bag of chips than a bunch of fresh carrots.

On the plus side, we could probably grow enough carrots to go around. Vermont has the highest per capita number of organic farmers and food processors of any state, as well as the highest number of community-supported agriculture farms and farmers markets per capita.

But, as you know, it takes work to ensure that everyone has access to those carrots — from the senior living alone, to the mother who told me she hates asking for help but acknowledged that the food shelf is a lifeline at the end of a hard month.

Vermont also has more than the average number of dedicated, creative people working hard to make fresh, minimally processed food more accessible to everyone.

We now have a statewide gleaning program to salvage excess produce from farms and orchards, as well as other innovative partnerships such as a foodbank-owned farm and a food shelf-based food service training program in which unemployed and underemployed Vermonters learn marketable skills while also feeding the hungry.

Our pioneering farm-to-school movement has helped facilitate and support change toward healthier offerings in school cafeterias around the state. It also holds a high-profile and totally rockin’ Junior Iron Chef contest annually in which dozens of school teams compete like athletes with recipes starring local, wholesome ingredients.

Long before the White House planted a kitchen garden, Vermont boasted a thriving gardening culture, including vegetable gardens tended by grade-schoolers, by seniors (with special raised beds for easier access), by the incarcerated (who donate produce to their nearby food shelf and learn job skills), by emergency shelter residents and by a global mosaic of new Americans.

On the infrastructure side, we are nurturing a growing system of food hubs from Bellows Falls to the Northeast Kingdom, a model recognized by the USDA as the wave of the future for their role in increasing physical and organizational resources such as storage, processing and distribution services that support small farms and healthy communities.

As renowned California chef and food activist Alice Waters said during a visit a few years ago, “Why doesn’t the state of Vermont just show us the way?”

And yet, in spite of all these inspiring and successful efforts, Vermont still has hungry children and we still have an obesity problem.

Hunger Vermont reports that 1 in 5 Vermont children experiences hunger or food hardship, which puts them at greater risk for a number of health issues, including obesity.

Rachel K. Johnson, the Bickford Professor of Nutrition at the University of Vermont, shares that while “Vermont is faring somewhat better than the rest of the country, 27 percent of our children are overweight or obese according to the most recent CDC data.”

Johnson applauds you for shining a spotlight on the public health crisis of childhood obesity with an emphasis on moving more and eating more healthfully, but she also wishes that there was a little more direct recognition of some of the other issues at play.

“A colleague at Tufts recently analyzed all the factors around childhood obesity,” Johnson says. “It goes way, way, way beyond just individual choices. We live in an environment that promotes obesity,” she says, detailing super-sized portions, strategically located fast food outlets near schools and marketing to children.

“Frankly,” she says, “our kids need to eat healthier and move more, but they also need to eat less.”

Last summer, I spent time at the King Street Center in downtown Burlington where I watched teenagers cooking in an after-school program and preschoolers eating lunch family-style, politely passing platters of turkey burgers.

“We worry when children come to the center carrying junk food,” says Vicky Smith, King Street’s executive director. “We try not to be judgmental of families struggling with weight or with income to put healthy food on the table. We’re not here to be the food police. We set the tone, what happens within these four walls, and the kids can take that message back home.”

Smith, like Parisi, worries about looming budget cuts that threaten programs that help so many of the at-risk families they work with.

“If we really value the health and well-being of our kids, we’d be putting resources there rather than cutting,” Parisi says.

A few years ago, while observing a cooking class offered at the Committee on Temporary Shelter’s family shelter in Burlington, I asked some of the parents about their efforts to feed their families healthy meals.

Later, one mother pulled me aside. “I can’t give my kids much,” she said. “If they beg me for a Happy Meal, you think I’m gonna say ‘No, it’s not healthy for you.’ It’s something I can give them. It makes them happy.”

So, Mrs. Obama, as you visit Burlington today, take a look at what we’re doing in Vermont, but know that we, like the rest of the nation, have more to do. Amid our bounty of healthy, local food, many challenges remain.

Melissa Pasanen
Savorvore writer
Burlington Free Press