Cal Poly invites Michelle Obama to speak at local childhood obesity summit

STRIDE's Pink and Dude Chefs program gives school children the ability to learn health eating habits in a hands-on way. Photo courtesy of STRIDE.

In response to Michelle Obama’s new government initiative, STRIDE (Science through Translational Research In Diet and Exercise) director Ann McDermott penned a letter to the first lady inviting her to speak at the HEAL SLO Childhood Obesity Summit at Hearst Ranch this fall.

The backbone of the initiative is aimed at combating childhood obesity and is already being implemented in the San Luis Obispo County, thanks to the efforts of groups like STRIDE, which is a research-based community health organization at Cal Poly.

On Feb. 9, Michelle Obama unveiled the Let’s Move Campaign. Backed by up to $1 billion a year in federal funds for the next 10 years, Let’s Move represents the first federal childhood obesity task force ever created. According to the campaign’s presidential memorandum, almost 30 percent of children across the nation are overweight or obese, which is almost triple the 1980 rate.

Studies show that approximately 80 percent of obese children will continue to have a high body mass index (BMI) as adults. Overweight adults are at an increased risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and numerous other health problems.

The BMI scale is an estimate of body fat percentage. Obesity is defined as having a BMI of over 30, while having a BMI of more than 25 is considered overweight.

While San Luis Obispo County may seem more health-conscious than the rest of the nation, a 2004 study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), a nonprofit organization established by the California Public Health Association, found that approximately 24.7 percent of the children in San Luis Obispo County were overweight or obese, as compared to the national 30 percent.

Kinesiology graduate student Kyla Tom, a program coordinator at STRIDE, explained.

“In general, I think San Luis Obispo is a forward-moving, health-conscious place,” she said. “But we still have health problems and issues, and I think it’s good to be in the forefront of that.”

While San Luis Obispo County is working to get ahead of the obesity epidemic, STRIDE is supplying the research. STRIDE is working to create scientific standards for healthy eating and exercise. They then translate this into programs the community can easily understand and utilize.

“I want to say that we use research in order to implement programs to help the community,” Tom said.

For example, STRIDE’s Pink and Dude Chefs program partners with the community’s Bright Futures After-School Learning Program to teach healthy eating habits. Tomas Cee, Bright Futures director at Mesa Middle School, said the 12-year-olds love the hands-on approach.

“The kids are very excited about the chef program,” Cee said. “They are asking me at least every other day when we’re going to do it again.”

The FLASH study, on the other hand, focuses on the college population. The study was developed to track and analyze the eating and other health habits of incoming freshman. The program, which is still in the process of collecting data to analyze, will ultimately be used to help make changes across the campus as a whole.

STRIDE also provides programs for adults, minorities, elderly populations and pregnant women.

This multifaceted approach to fighting obesity is the reason McDermott said Obama might respond to the invitation. Both programs are based upon the societal model of public health, so they have a markedly similar structure.

Stephanie Teaford, the community liaison for STRIDE, compared the societal model to an onion.

“At the heart, the center, is the individual,” Teaford said. “And surrounding that individual is their support, the family.” Surrounding that core is the school, the local community and then society as a whole.

In fact, the programs were so similar that, after Obama’s speech, McDermott said her office was flooded with phone calls and e-mails from both community members and STRIDE participants. Within a week, McDermott and other STRIDE leaders decided to invite Michelle Obama to come and see San Luis Obispo’s efforts.

“We’re trying to tell her that we’re doing all the things that she asked for,” McDermott said. “So we’re asking her to come out for the Childhood Health Summit.”

The resulting invitation was really more of a compilation, highlighting the county’s efforts to create a healthy community. The letter included a photo documentary of San Luis Obispo schools, hospitals, nonprofits, government agencies and private businesses. Each of the 34 photo-stories was signed by community leaders, such as Cal Poly President Warren Baker and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee.

One of the letter’s signers, CAFES (College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences) Center for Sustainability Director Hunter Francis, collaborated on the letter.

“I’m a huge supporter of STRIDE,” Francis said. “One of the things Ann did a really good job of highlighting through the photo essay is that we now have a broad coalition of stakeholders (in the health movement).”

Cal Poly graduate Madeline Dover worked with McDermott to design the document.

“There’s kind of a call to action in the letter,” Dover said. “The cause would be to kind of stretch our initiative to bring community members together for the common goal (of fighting obesity).”

Nutrition science junior Rosalia Rochon, vice president of Cal Poly’s Nutrition Club, said she believes the Michelle Obama visit would encourage community members that they are indeed making progress.

“I think just the awareness of it would help,” Rochon said. “And I think it will encourage the community to make healthier decisions, even just at the grocery store level.”

Kinesiology senior and STRIDE program manager Kristina Wong said she agreed.

“It would be awesome to have her,” Wong said. “It would really turn heads and create more awareness and community support. This is not something that just Cal Poly or one hospital can do. We need the whole community’s support.”

Regardless of whether Obama attends, the real work has already started with the compilation of the request and the ready involvement of San Luis Obispo leaders. For Cal Poly students, addressing the obesity epidemic under the societal model means that many different disciplines have the potential to get involved. In fact, more than 11 disciplines, from statistics, architecture and graphic communication to nutrition and food science, are already taking part.

In other words, the community is mobilizing on every level and STRIDE, and Cal Poly with it, might find itself running to keep up.