By George Ball - Burpee Chairman and CEO
Childhood obesity is now the nation's disease—an ailment crippling the body politic. The
long-term health effects are well-established and include early onset diabetes and premature
hip and joint problems. American children are prematurely aging, suffering from sicknesses that
were once the provenance of older adults. Old has become the new young.
The lineup of culprits includes school vending machines, latchkey children, the endangered
home-cooked meal, vanishing physical-education classes, fried everything, supersized portions,
sedentary hours spent zoned out in front of the computer screen, nutritional ignorance,
misleading labeling and more. But whatever and whoever is to blame, it is surely not kids. We
cannot expect children to make the right food choices when healthy foods are out of reach and
nutrition-smart role models are not in evidence.
The saddest thing about childhood obesity is that it's unnecessary. It's inexcusable that in
the breadbasket of the world American children are eating so much lousy food. First lady
Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative, "Let's Move," represents a welcome beginning to what
will have to become a nutritional revolution.
As an agriculturist and horticulturist, I believe that the answer is simple. As parents,
educators, nutritionists and marketers, we have to imbue our children with the love of—and
consumption of—the most beneficial food for growing bodies. This means fresh vegetables and
fruits, whether store-bought or home-grown.
As kids, we imitate our elders, who teach most effectively by example. Right now, adults aren't
doing a good job of modeling good behavior. According to a recent report by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, just 26% of adults have three or more servings of vegetables a
day, a number that includes those who deem a tomato slice or lettuce on a burger as a
"vegetable serving." In other words, roughly 80% of U.S. adults scarcely eat any vegetables at
Liking vegetables is not a given: Every food other than breast milk is an acquired taste. But
children can easily learn to enjoy eating their greens. It's simply a matter of education and
familiarity—as in "family." Children will happily eat squash, artichoke or broccoli, to the
delight of the parents who taught them to do so. As for fruits, children can gobble them up,
but like vegetables, they must be at the ready, at least as available as all the junky
Kids imitate their elders, who teach most effectively by example.
In our research at Atlee Burpee, we have found that kids who grow vegetables alongside their
parents eat them regularly and with gusto. Peas, green beans and raw carrots—the very
vegetables that kids are told to eat, their parents' admonishing fingers wagging—are particular
While not all American families have the benefit of a sun-filled backyard for a vegetable
garden, companies like Burpee offer many vegetable seeds and plants that you can grow easily in
containers. You can grow beets, carrots, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts, which can be
plucked from the stalk well into winter.
Eighteen years ago, as president of the American Horticultural Society, I initiated a
children's gardening program. Our annual symposium drew thousands of educators and community
gardeners with the goal of educating and inspiring children to grow gardens in their school and
neighborhoods. The results were heartening: Thousands of churches, schools and community
centers sprouted new gardens.
Yet no single institution is sufficient; fighting a problem of this sort requires a
multifaceted effort. Churches could do much more to inspire families to grow vegetables. Public
and private botanical and community gardening groups should augment efforts to lure neighbors
into their educational demonstration gardens. Most families, whether in the city or suburbs,
can plant at least a "starter garden"—involving pre-teen children in the planting, tending and
While the first lady deserves the credit for focusing the nation on childhood obesity, it is an
issue that both political parties can endorse. Vegetables are deliciously nonpartisan.
Let's make 2011 the Year of the Vegetable. We have nothing to lose but our waistlines.