The fight against obesity and malnutrition in our Lowcountry schools 

Tipping the Scales

When Davida Johnson-Pugh was 14 years old, she weighed 455 pounds. She would eat breakfast and lunch at school, snack on Little Debbie cakes, and drink soda the whole day through. Johnson-Pugh had always been a chubby kid. She was picked on at school and would get winded while walking. But when she became a teenager, her weight began to create serious health issues.

Johnson-Pugh's obesity had already made her stop breathing in her sleep. But when doctors told her she was close to getting diabetes, Johnson-Pugh knew she had to change her lifestyle immediately. So her grandmother contacted Louie's Kids, a local nonprofit dedicated to fighting childhood obesity. Over the past three months, she's lost 65 pounds thanks to Louie's Kids.

Despite her weight — and contrary to what one might think — Johnson-Pugh was malnourished. Her diet had very little nutritional value. "I didn't pay attention to what I would eat or when," said Johnson-Pugh. "Instead of choosing to eat what was healthy, I'd choose to eat what was bad."

South Carolina has the fifth highest adult obesity rate in the country. But what's surprising is that like Johnson-Pugh, this portion of the population suffers from malnutrition as well.

Malnutrition is a condition that develops when the body doesn't get the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs to maintain healthy tissues and organ function. This can be from an excess or insufficient amount of food intake. An overweight person can be just as malnourished as someone who's famished.

click to enlarge Davida Johnson-Pugh lost 65 pounds thanks to Louie's Kids - KAITLYN ISERMAN
  • Kaitlyn Iserman
  • Davida Johnson-Pugh lost 65 pounds thanks to Louie's Kids

"A lot of it has to do with choices that have to do with food," says Caroline Price, a registered dietician with the Mt. Pleasant Medi-Weightloss Clinic. "High fat and carbohydrate sources won't provide as much vitamins and minerals as fruits and vegetables. If a person consumes more calories than they need, their body stores it. If they continue to eat without burning the calories off, they store and store and store. It depends on the situation, but diabetes, high blood pressure, and diet-related diseases all stem from an overabundance of calories. Genetics also plays a big role."

There are many reasons why this phenomenon occurs. And one of the primary causes is psychological.

Johnson-Pugh can vouch for that. "When I get depressed, I eat a lot," she say.

Like Louie's Kids, Overeaters Anonymous helps folks deal with their bad dietary habits. As part of the recovery process, OA helps people to understand the root behind why they eat compulsively. For many, when they feel anxious, depressed, or stressed, they eat to take the edge off their feelings. And according to OA, this kind of binge eating only triggers cravings for more food. That's how one candy bar becomes 10 and a full cereal box becomes empty.

It's natural to seek comfort in food. But when a pattern of compulsive eating emerges, food becomes a coping mechanism, a vicious addiction that keeps victims linked to their past. As people overeat, they feel pain and regret, which then leads to more eating. In the famous words of Fat Bastard, "I eat because I'm unhappy, and I'm unhappy because I eat."

The problem with this type of "quick fix" eating is that it leads to obesity and malnutrition, since the food that people typically binge on has few vitamins or antioxidants and is low in fiber. Binge snacks are generally processed food that requires no cooking and that you can grab as soon as a craving strikes — treats like chips, ice cream, fries, and cookies.

But a person's relationship with food is also learned. The values are cultural, reinforced by advertising and the fast-paced nature of our society. Our eating habits are often learned from our families.

Denise (name has been changed), who attends Overeaters Anonymous, has just made it to eight weeks of binge-eating abstinence. Though Denise, like most people we interviewed, doesn't see a correlation between her obesity and malnutrition, she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure and says her "binge" foods were never healthy.

Denise also believes her relationship with food was formed by her family. She describes her mother as a young Liz Taylor-type who rewarded Denise with food for good behavior. If she played alone, she got a brownie. If she made high marks at school, she got candy. Even when Denise lost weight at Weight Watchers (because she was overweight as a child), her mother gave her cupcakes. So Denise was always on her best behavior.

As Denise got older and tried to be "superwoman" — the perfect mom, wife, PTA parent, and soccer coach — she felt like she deserved to eat all she wanted. It was how she relieved stress during the day. "I'm a good Southern cook, and that's part of the problem," Denise says. "A really good one."

Denise's a school teacher. One summer break, she found herself sleeping 20 hours a day. "Ultimately, it was my health that pushed me to seek help," she says. "I know I need food to live, but now I eat more vegetables. I take vitamins and eat smaller portions. I'll send someone else home with the leftovers."

But Denise's main concern is that we are teaching young kids bad habits. "We are killing our kids," she says. "I don't want to see another generation go through the suffering of obesity."

School Lunch Reform

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's runs around West Virginia dressed in a giant pea suit. First Lady Michelle Obama is on the cover of Newsweek pushing her Let's Move campaign.

click to enlarge Walter Campbell, director of nutrition for the Charleston County School district, says that changes to what cafeterias serve will happen slowly - KAITLYN ISERMAN
  • Kaitlyn Iserman
  • Walter Campbell, director of nutrition for the Charleston County School district, says that changes to what cafeterias serve will happen slowly

Currently, one-third of kids in the U.S. are obese or overweight. Billions of healthcare dollars are spent treating diet-related diseases every year. Obesity and malnutrition are affecting the entire country. And activists like Obama and Oliver believe the best way to save the next generation is to teach children about nutrition and improve the quality of food served at schools.

As school lunch reform continues to grow as a national pursuit, changes in Charleston are being made to fight obesity by everyone from county executives to people at the grassroots level. What began five years ago as an effort to limit the amount of junk food sold in vending machines and offer side salads at schools may eventually evolve into the localization of agriculture, distributed throughout Charleston County schools.

Slow Food USA is one organization doing what they can to help. That's why they started the Time for Lunch campaign, whose goal is to get Congress to increase school lunch funding by $1 per child per day in an attempt to put real food in schools.

Time for Lunch was Slow Food USA's first nationwide campaign, a unique effort that united all Slow Food chapters for an important cause. Charleston's chapter participated in the campaign by having children and adults collect petition signatures outside of the Mt. Pleasant Whole Foods Market. Slow Food Charleston collected 2,300 signatures, more than any other city.

Carole Addlestone, the Slow Food Charleston chapter leader, thinks South Carolina needs more hands-on approaches to ensure a slim and healthier youth. She wants vegetable gardens at schools, farm fresh vegetables in cafeterias, and cafeteria workers who are trained to cook healthy food.

"It's not just about health," says Addlestone. "It's about the feeling of hopelessness poor nutrition causes in kids. School lunch reform is a huge challenge because of red tape and finances, but I think it could be fixed a lot easier than other problems facing our country. Our future is our children, right? We have to be responsible for those less fortunate."

Addlestone, a self-proclaimed dreamer, also hopes to see local farmers put fruit and vegetable stands at schools to provide kids with access to affordable produce, especially in so-called food deserts — neighborhoods without nearby supermarkets. In these areas, like Chicora-Cherokee in North Charleston, there's nowhere within a walkable distance for people to buy fresh produce.

And the term "food desert" is accurate. You can think of Chicora-Cherokee as an industrial food wasteland, where a person could wander for 40 days and 40 nights and still not find a fresh vegetable in sight. There are convenience stores, fried chicken joints, mom-and-pop fried seafood restaurants, and ABC packaging stores, but few if any places to buy nutritious food. As a result, another factor that leads to malnutrition and obesity is socioeconomic status and geography.

Barbara Ann Rivers, who's lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, says they haven't had a grocery store since the Winn-Dixie closed years ago. So to get groceries, Rivers has to take the bus to Walmart or the downtown Piggly Wiggly. On her trip home, carrying large amounts of groceries is extremely difficult.

So for the kids living in food deserts, and the many other children who come from poor families, having nutritious food in cafeterias is vital. For some, the only meal they get to eat is at school.

Big Green

Jerry Zucker Middle School of Science, which just won $5,000 from the Nickelodeon Big Green Grants program, is an example of a school in Charleston seizing the school lunch reform challenge with their bare hands. The pristine and polished Zucker, a new North Charleston middle school, is in the process of building a giant garden with enough plants to feed all of its 430 students.

The City Paper spent a lot of time at Zucker Middle. The day we stopped by, we visited the cafeteria where we ate chicken fingers, mashed potatoes, string beans, whole wheat breadsticks, and an apple. We also drank chocolate milk. All five food groups were present, but the chicken was processed, the potatoes were instant, the string beans came from a can, the apples were small, and the milk was filled with sugar.

click to enlarge Carole Addlestone says it's time for healthy lunches - KAITLYN ISERMAN

However, thanks in part to Earth Force, an environmental organization that sponsors Zucker's urban garden project, the students are beginning to question what is on their plate, how it got there, and what they should be eating to stay healthy.

One School at a Time

There's no doubt that incorporating nutrition into the public school curriculum can create a more conscious generation of eaters. But the challenge is not only to get fresh fruits and vegetables into cafeterias and onto lunch trays. It's another thing entirely to get kids to eat them.

Meanwhile, waiting for the public school system as a whole to change what it serves its students will take years. But with dedication and hard work, it can happen.

"Change can happen one school at a time," says Walter Campbell, director of nutrition and food services for the Charleston County School District. "And a lot of changes will be made one school at a time."

Campbell says that thanks to vegetable gardens at Charleston schools, garden-fresh produce will be available in cafeterias — as long as the schools can meet certain guidelines. For example, some vegetables have to be washed in a very specific manner. In some cases, these requirements can be tough to meet. And that's why Campbell says they can't source food from nearby farms, like the ones on Johns Island.

Meanwhile, new changes, however slight, continue to be made by Campbell. Next on his list is the elimination of high fructose corn syrup products, the purchasing of better cuts of meat, and adding more fruits and vegetables. Campbell says the Charleston County School District is even working to incorporate recipes from Oliver's Food Revolution, like Shepard's Pie, on the menu next year.

"We're going for slow and steady progress," Campbell says. "If we start sourcing more vegetables, we have to make sure we can keep giving kids the vegetables in the following years. All changes made must be sustainable."

Currently, all the funding for Charleston County School District meals comes from federal government reimbursement and cash funding from the students who buy lunch. Unfortunately, funds are tight. To make matters worse, the number of kids eating free lunches increased to 1100 students this year, a direct reflection of the economy. But even if the school district receives outside funding from investors, to make any changes, the funding must continue for a long period of time.

For Campbell, the obesity and malnutrition epidemic in the United States is similar to the cigarette-smoking epidemic 50 years ago. Just as we learned more about the links between smoking and cancer and other diseases, once the links between a poor diet and heart disease and obesity become more widely known, the more eating junk food will become somewhat taboo and the more people learn about good eating habits. Eventually, efforts from individuals and organizations like Eat Smart Move More and Louie's Kids will start to spread to even the most rural places in South Carolina. And with all of this information out there and a cultural shift in place, people — young kids especially — will naturally want to eat healthier.

And now that Obama has reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act, a portion of the $450 million assigned by the U.S. Senate to the act per year will be invested in farm-to-school projects, cafeteria worker training, and organic food pilot programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also about to overhaul the national nutritional guidelines for food served in schools, putting restrictions on everything from vending machines to bake sales. Eventually, these efforts will impact students in South Carolina.

But until then, Karalee Nielsen, who helped start the Green Heart project at Mitchell Elementary, says it best. "It's about people demanding that we want nutritional food for our kids," she says.

Nielsen, the co-owner of Revolutionary Eating Ventures, owners of Taco Boy, Monza, Poe's Tavern, and Closed for Business, adds, "[At Green Heart] we talk about how effort equals outcome. We get what we put in. This is going to come from the community, from people who have the vision. There are lots of answers."

And when the entire community is focused on making sure that the next generation of South Carolina students eats right, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

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