Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Hey, kids, go play -- Nov. 24, 2009 column


President Barack Obama is sending a message to the millions of American young people who sit on the couch and watch football on TV: Go outside and play.

The president appears in a new public service announcement throwing a football around the South Lawn of the White House with three National Football League players and some local children. The PSA is slated to run during football games over the holiday weekend and the rest of the season.

Obama is drawing attention to the NFL’s PLAY 60 campaign, a project to fight childhood obesity by encouraging kids to get active for 60 minutes a day. Adults can participate through the United We Serve volunteer program.

The idea seems absurd that the president needs to tell kids play is good, but it’s nothing new. Presidents since Dwight Eisenhower have been trying to get Americans off the couch.

In 1953, with American families settling into cozy, car-centered suburbs, a study found that American children lagged far behind those in Austria, Italy and Switzerland in physical fitness. Eisenhower was also concerned that many draftees were too physically unfit to serve in the military. Surely the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II could nip that troublesome trend.

Alas, he put his vice president, Richard Nixon, in charge of developing a plan to encourage fitness.

In December 1960, president-elect John Kennedy took the unprecedented step of announcing a new policy even before he was inaugurated. The crucial issue? Physical fitness.

In an article titled “The Soft American” in Sports Illustrated, Kennedy warned that Americans were neglecting their bodies and getting soft, and that was a menace to national security. He outlined a four-point plan to get people active. The ambitious effort would include a new White House office, the nation’s governors and federal departments.

“We do not want our children to be a generation of spectators,” JFK wrote. “Rather we want each of them to be a participant in the vigorous life.”

When he learned that Theodore Roosevelt had challenged Marine officers to walk 50 miles in 20 hours, Kennedy challenged the White House staff to a 50-mile hike. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was game and walked the 50 miles -- in leather oxford shoes. Inspired, some Americans took up walking, but the fad soon faded.

Check out www.fitness.gov for more history, a fitness test and guidelines for getting fit.

Every president takes a swing at improving fitness. And yet, we sink farther into the couch. Sixty-six million Americans are overweight or obese.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that obesity among children has doubled since 1980 and has tripled for those 12 to 19. One in three children in the United States is overweight or obese, first lady Michelle Obama tells audiences.

Childhood obesity is important as Congress struggles to reform the nation’s health system. Overweight teens are more at risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart trouble and other adult diseases.

The Obamas have made fighting childhood obesity a priority, starting with the White House vegetable garden. They promote fitness and visit schools to shine the media spotlight on healthy food choices. Change, however, will take more than a nudge from the White House.

Many school systems have gone in the wrong direction, cutting recess and physical education. School cafeterias have improved meals but they need to do more. The 30.5 million lunches and 10.1 million breakfasts served daily are balanced but contain too much salt and fat and too many calories, the Institute of Medicine cautioned. Its study recommended serving only low-fat or fat-free milk, requiring more orange and dark green vegetables and setting an upper limit on calories per meal.

Still, school meals are a better choice than the fare at a la carte food lines, vending machines, snack bars and school stores with which meals compete.

Congress is holding hearings in preparation for reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act. Some senators want the government to regulate all foods sold in schools. But food is big business.

The food and beverage industry spends about $10 billion to $12 billion a year on advertising targeted to children, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Even milk is a battleground. Dairy trade groups are spending upwards of a million dollars in a media campaign to defend chocolate milk, the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday. Three fifth-graders in Barrington, Ill., joined the battle after their school system banned flavored milk from elementary and middle-school menus.

The children persuaded the schools to serve the treat on Fridays because children weren’t drinking the white milk. The kids were bringing sugary drinks from home. Officials say they’ll decide after January if the benefits of calcium and Vitamin D are worth the extra three teaspoons of sugar per half pint, the Times reported.

Maybe the kids could keep drinking the chocolate milk if they run outside and play.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

49 million hungry Americans? Not exactly - Nov. 19, 2009 column


As Americans planned their Thanksgiving feasts, some news organizations reported that 49 million Americans went hungry last year. The news was shocking, disturbing -- and exaggerated.

The news stories misstated the findings of a federal report on the nation’s food problems, but the facts are bad enough. It’s hard for millions of Americans to put food on their tables, and the situation is getting worse even though some say the recession is easing.

Here’s what the late radio personality Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story,” based on a closer reading of the report on Household Food Security in 2008 and other documents released Monday by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service.

First, you need to know that hunger doesn’t exist in Uncle Sam’s America. I’ll explain shortly.

But 17.3 million people – not 49.1 million -- lived in households with “very low food security,” an increase of 4 percent from 2007, according to the report. Very low food security means at least one person in the household ate less or did not eat all day at times during the year because of limited or uncertain access to food.

For the richest country on Earth to have almost 6 percent of all households -- 12.1 million adults and 5.2 million children – in such precarious straits, is, as President Barack Obama said of the report, unsettling.

So where did the figure of 49.1 million people – and as at least one online site erroneously reported 49 million households – come from?

The survey found that 85 percent of American households were “food secure” in 2008, which the government defines as having “access at all times to enough food for an active health life for all household members.”

The remaining 15 percent of households – 49.1 million people -- were “food insecure,” a broad term that encompasses a range of experience from being worried about getting enough food all the way to skipping meals and losing weight. The ranks of food insecure households increased 11 percent from 2007.

“Hunger rose significantly last year,” President Obama said in a statement. Not exactly.

The federal government stopped using the word hunger in 2006 after a two-year study of the methodology and language of food surveys by a panel of the National Academies of Science. The panel concluded that hunger is an individual, physiological condition that may result from household food insecurity. Food insecurity occurs when someone in a household has limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

The government divided food insecurity households into “low food secure” and “very low food secure.” Those with low food security are able to get enough food through federal food programs and community food pantries to avoid disrupting family eating patterns or missing meals. About 9 percent of households experienced low food security, an increase of 7 percent in one year.

Those with very low food security fall through holes in the safety net. Lacking the money or other resources for food, they’re forced to change their consumption. Normal eating patterns are disrupted and some people experience hunger.

The government says that children are usually protected from hunger even in households with very low food security, because moms will do just about anything to keep their kids from going hungry. Even so, in about 500,000 families in 2008, one child or more had to eat less, skip meals or go whole days without food.

This is unacceptable. Congress is working on reauthorizing federal Child Nutrition Programs, with an expansion of summer feeding programs. Obama proposed $10 billion in additional funding over 10 years.

My guess about the news coverage is that reporters and editors were strapped for time and grabbed the top-line number. They failed to decode the terms the government uses. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam has made it nearly impossible for ordinary people to understand the scope of the problem.

We know that hunger by any name would be worse without the heroic efforts of local food banks and other emergency food programs. They’re stretched thin. We need to support them and not just during the holidays.

Happy Thanksgiving.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Obama goes to China -- Nov. 12, 2009 column


When President Richard Nixon left the White House for his historic trip to China, he addressed about 1,500 cheering school children and thousands of administration officials and federal workers who thronged the South Lawn.

The departure ceremony on Feb. 17, 1972, was broadcast live on radio and TV. The New York Times reported that first lady Pat Nixon wore a full-length blond mink coat as she followed her husband to the waiting helicopter.

These days, Americans are nothing if not blasé about presidential travel.

When President Barack Obama left Thursday for his weeklong trip to Asia, the big news was that the parents of the “balloon boy” would plead guilty to charges stemming from the publicity stunt.

It may seem unremarkable that Obama is on the road. With this, his eighth foreign trip as president, he will set a record for the most countries visited by a president in his first year – 20. Michelle Obama stayed home this time.

Nixon’s send-off was over the top because Nixon loved pomp, and because he was the first president to visit China.

“This is the week that changed the world!” he declared at the end of his visit.

This is Obama’s first trip to China. The White House is downplaying expectations for tangible results of the trip. And yet, it is significant that Obama once again is reminding the world that he’s not George W. Bush and that America’s worldview has shifted.

“The overarching theme is that America is a Pacific nation,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

Obama, who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a child, is the first president with “an Asia-Pacific orientation,” Rhodes said, and “he understands that the future of our prosperity and our security is very much tied to this part of the world."

For most of our history, a Europe- and Atlantic-centric notion of America prevailed. The Asia-Pacific tilt reflects 21st century reality. China and Japan hold $800 billion and $731 billion in U.S. debt respectively. Our economic future and theirs are intertwined. Trade, currency values, global warming and security issues call for candid discussions.

Obama’s travels are not a sign of his “wanderlust,” said Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs with the National Security Council. Instead, they reflect an international agenda -- wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, climate change and the worldwide economic crisis – that is no less daunting than the domestic one.

The president also believes that "it is essential to restore American leadership, influence, image, and standing in a world where all have suffered in recent years," Bader said.

Obama’s visits to Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea come as he may be more popular there than here. The Pew Global Attitudes Project asked people worldwide last spring if they were confident that Obama will do the right thing in world affairs.

In China, 62 percent of those surveyed said they were confident Obama would do the right thing, compared with just 30 percent who had been confident about President George W. Bush last year. In Japan, Obama had an 85 percent confidence rating, while Bush had only 25 percent last year. In Indonesia, Obama had the confidence of 71 percent of those surveyed, compared with Bush’s 23 percent.

Besides making speeches, meeting with presidents and prime ministers and participating in the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Obama will attend a state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing. In Seoul, he and South Korea President Lee Myung-bak have scheduled a news conference.

Details are being worked out for a town-hall style meeting with students in Shanghai. The White House wants to build on the good feelings young Chinese have for Obama.

A professor of English at Shanghai International Studies University wrote recently that this is the first time in his 18 years in China that he has seen T-shirts for sale with the image of a U.S. president. Pirated DVDs of Obama’s speeches and print editions of his books are also for sale on the street, Mark C. Eades wrote on the Christian Science Monitor’s csmonitor.com.

Obama may not change the world in a week, as Nixon proclaimed he had, but Obama is sending the message that the United States intends to compete in Asia and remain a leader on the world stage.

Speaking of which, the president won’t need to put away his suitcase when he returns. He is expected to travel to Oslo next month to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Now's time to end homelessness for veterans -- Nov. 5, 2009 column


One winter morning a couple of years ago, I was shoveling snow that had fallen overnight when someone said, “I could do that for you.”

He politely introduced himself as Ziggy and said a neighbor sent him. Ziggy was solidly built, not young, wearing a shabby jacket with no scarf, hat or gloves. He wasn’t seeking pity or a handout. He wanted work. He told me he was a veteran, and I handed him the shovel.

Ziggy made quick work of the snow. He said he was a master gardener and would be back in the spring to help with yard work. He walked down the street, and I figured that was the last I’d see of him.

Sure enough, though, when spring showed up, so did Ziggy.

He pruned and weeded and sent me with to the home store with a list. Leaning on a rake, he told me he’d grown up in a foster family and after high school joined the Army, where he’d learned gardening. When he came home, he’d started a landscaping business. He had plenty of work for a while and even hired a couple of guys.

What else clouded Ziggy’s prospects I don’t know, but when someone stole his truck with his landscaping equipment, Ziggy wound up on foot, without a livelihood, living on the street.

He joined about 131,000 of the nation’s 24 million veterans who are homeless on any given night, according to Department of Veterans Affairs. About 260,000 vets are homeless each year, the VA estimates.

Homeless veterans are not a new phenomenon. Historians say there were homeless vets after the American Revolution. The VA provides offers a range of benefits and services, and presidents always promise to do more.

What’s new this Veterans Day is that VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said he and President Obama are personally committed to ending homelessness among veterans within five years. Ending as in eradicating, not just reducing.

Shinseki announced the goal Tuesday at a summit on homeless veterans. He stressed that for the first time the government’s aim was not just to rescue homeless vets from the streets but to prevent homelessness.

“No one who has ever served this nation as veterans should ever be living on the streets,” Shinseki declared.

He pledged $3.2 billion next year to fight homelessness among vets. The lion’s share -- $2.7 billion – will go toward expanding health care for vets, especially mental health and substance abuse treatment. About $500 million will be used for homeless programs.

The VA works with more than 600 community organizations around the country to provide transitional housing for 20,000 vets, and it will work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide permanent housing for more than 20,000 vets and their families.

The new Post-9/11 GI bill will enable qualified veterans go to state colleges and universities tuition-free, a major step toward avoiding homelessness, Shinseki said. The VA will expand efforts to help vets who start small businesses and will work with the Small Business Administration to ensure that veteran-owned companies are in line to compete for federal contracts.

The comprehensive push comes as the trend for homeless veterans is improving. The estimate of homeless vets has declined from about 195,000 six years ago. The concern is that if nothing new is done during these tough economic times, the number of homeless veterans could increase 10 percent to 15 percent over the next five years, Shinseki said.

Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are about 3 percent of the homeless vet population, but they are becoming homeless faster than vets of previous conflicts, studies by veterans’ groups show. Vets of Iraq and Afghanistan fall into homelessness within 18 months.

Shinseki’s plan includes expanding housing options for vets and improving discharge plans for vets who have been incarcerated. A national referral center will help vets and their families locate local social service providers.

Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff in the Bush administration, is getting high marks from veterans groups. We all can hope his plan succeeds.

The last time I saw Ziggy, a chill was in the air and days were getting shorter. He put the garden to bed for the winter and told me he was heading to Florida, where he thought he could find gardening work year round. I hope he found his home in the sun.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.