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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 58875
ISSN: 0893844X
Journal code: SYNT

The day after the State of the Union address, First Lady Michelle Obama made a visit to a school in Virginia as part of her continuing quest to promote better nutrition for the nation's youth. Both nationally and locally, schools are being seen as the front line if we are to have any hope of reducing the nation's waistline and improving our health care system's bottom line. After years of being entrusted with making sure our school kids are not trying to study on an empty stomach, the lunch ladies are now being asked to help students eat less fat and sugar, and more veggies and whole grains.

School lunches are being downsized, and reduced sodium and fat are the new mantras. Childhood obesity experts debate whether to call the current situation a crisis or an epidemic, but there is widespread agreement that a significant portion of our youth are in trouble.

Here's a snippet from a March 2011 report from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

"The problem of childhood obesity in the United States has grown considerably in recent years. Between 16 percent and 33 percent of children and adolescents are obese. Unhealthy weight gain due to poor diet and lack of exercise is responsible for over 300,000 deaths each year. The annual cost to society for obesity is estimated at nearly $100 billion. Overweight children are much more likely to become overweight adults unless they adopt and maintain healthier patterns of eating and exercise."

More than 300,000 deaths annually. $100 billion a year. That's a serious problem. Locally, Crouse Hospital has teamed up with the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation to bring a healthy eating program into the city schools, starting with a program at Hughes Magnet Elementary School, 345 Jamesville Ave. Local big men Jeff Kramer and Ted Long (not to mention Fab Melo) are setting examples by taking the pounds off in dramatic and very public fashion.

For many people living in the city, getting access to fresh and healthy foods can be difficult. For working parents, sometimes there just isn't enough time to cook the things they'd like to give their kids, so fast food becomes the default dinner for many. Still, food consumption is just half of the equation. The other culprit in the epidemic is a lack of activity.

Meanwhile the Syracuse Common Council took up the issue of who should be responsible for enforcing city rules on shoveling sidewalks. The mayor wanted to unleash code enforcement on those who failed to clear their walkways, but the Common Council instead opted for the status quo, which means that the Syracuse Police Department handles the matter. Except they rarely can make such enforcement a priority.

Walking down a city street free of even a dusting of the white stuff on a late January day, it's hard to think about shoveling inches, feet, yards of heavy wet snow from sidewalks, but as we well know, all that can change in an instant. One good lake effect event and we will once again find the streets filled with pedestrians young and old forced onto the pavement because the sidewalks aren't shoveled clear.

So what does this have to do with childhood obesity? Maybe there's an opportunity here for the young people of our city to recapture the lost art of shoveling, in the process earning themselves a few bucks, dropping a few pounds and making winter more pleasant for their families and neighbors.

Think about it. Not all that long ago, every neighborhood had a small army of youngsters who would show up with a shovel, ring the doorbell and, for an agreed-upon price, clear your walk and your driveway. Today you hear homeowners and landlords alike complain that you can't get a kid to shovel the walk.

Instead of discussing whether it's up to the cops or the code enforcers, how about we give the kids a try? Someone is missing a real opportunity here. We need those brigades of kids with shovels to take back the streets. Wherever there is an untended sidewalk, some enterprising young person could mobilize his or her friends to get it cleared off. They might even form a little co-op and send the city the bill, to be tacked onto the property owner's tax bill (the city already charges landlords with untended lawns and dangerous sidewalks).

Think of the benefits on so many levels. Kids get more exercise, and earn some cash. Pedestrians get to walk in safety. Homeowners wouldn't have to be out there day and night with snowblowers. It would even help the environment, as kids huffing and puffing with shovels don't contribute to global warming and noise pollution the way snowblowers do. The kids could have an entrepreneurial experience at a young age, and enjoy it. (Shoveling snow with your friends in a Syracuse blizzard can actually be fun.)

Kids with shovels, like paperboys, were once one of those slender threads that tied communities and neighborhoods together. Replacing them with snowblowers may seem like progress to some, but in this case the technological "progress" has a big downside. Let's see if the kids can help us take back the streets. Then they'll be hungry enough to eat a whole bag of baby carrots.

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Read Ed Griffin-Nolan's award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@

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