When I was growing up in a rural community in Missouri, there was only one “fat kid” in my class at school, and I only knew three people in our little town who could accurately be described as “obese.” That translates to a pretty low percentage when you consider there were about 500 people in the town and everyone knew everyone else.

Back then, everyone I knew had a garden, and every kid three and up weeded and hoed and picked and peeled and pared and canned and froze and hunted and fished and ran cattle over the ridges. We drank milk that had been in the cow a few hours before, spread butter on home made bread that grandma whipped with an electric mixer. We ate beef that was grass fed on the family farm, bacon from hogs who wallowed in the mud and eggs from chickens who came-and-went between the yard and the hen house as they pleased.

We rode our bikes and our horses and we traipsed through the woods exploring and we played impromptu pick-up games of baseball, basketball, soccer and touch football. Most of the moms were home, but they worked their asses off planting and weeding the garden, then putting up the harvest for the winter. We picked up thousands and thousands of bales of hay and then stacked them in a hayloft that was hot and dusty and miserable and at least 120 degrees.

My grandparents didn’t even buy popcorn, and it was the job of the grandkids to crank the corn sheller by hand and burn off in advance the calories we would consume in popcorn and Grandma’s popcorn balls, and we were in no way unique. Every kid I knew back then – even the heavy one I mentioned earlier – and there was probably a metabolic reason for her weight, because all of her sisters were thin. had that same exact basic experiences. Even the ones who lived in the city. We got shipped to the grandparents for the summer and taught what work was. My grandparents lived within thirty miles of one another, so I stayed all summer, going back and forth every three or four weeks.

What a difference four decades makes.

Missouri is moving up the ranks, and that’s a bad thing, because it’s the rankings of childhood obesity rates in the US.

Pat Simmons, a Nutrition Specialist with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, says the latest numbers show 29% of high school students are overweight or obese. That’s higher than the 28% average nationwide.

She says, of course, there are a number of factors that are contributing to this problem.

“The main thing, I think, is environment. The change in obesity rates happened so fast that you can’t really attribute that to genetics, but what’s going on around us. So things like we’re moving less, eating more, and eating more of the unhealthy foods,” Simmons said.

But she says a lack of vigilance among parents can also be a problem.

“You know, a lot of times actually, parents don’t recognize their child is obese because it is so common that we think it’s not a big thing, because, ‘Well so is Mary and so is John and so forth,'” Simmons said.

Simmons says kids are getting way too much “screen time” in front of the TV or computer, and not enough exercise. She says there are also efforts underway to get more healthy options in school cafeterias. She says forming good habits at a young age is vital for life-long health.

“Unfortunately children that are obese tend to continue to be obese as they grow into adults. I’m not saying that it can’t be reversed, but it’s definitely much easier to prevent obesity than it is to treat it,” Simmons said.

A lot of these are problems being faced nationwide. So what is contributing to Missouri falling behind other states?

“Part of our situation is we are so extreme in our rural communities and our urban communities, and so a lot of times there’s problems with access to healthy foods. We tend to think that sometimes that’s just in the urban locations, but often times it’s in the rural communities as well. Or there are no walking trails for people to walk on or use, like city parks and things like that. So I think that’s a piece of it, is just our geography,” Simmons said.

September is national childhood obesity awareness month. Simmons says it’s not a problem that can be ignored by parents.

Now, we all know that fitness and nutrition are near-and-dear to my very healthy heart. When my children were growing up, they didn’t have a video game system. Not until all three were teenagers and one of them had a job in high school that she made quite a bit of money at, and she bought a PlayStation. We had a computer in the house before we had kids, but the computers the kids could use were in common areas, not bedrooms, and we only allowed each child an hour a day to play educational games like Carmen Sandiego and Math Rabbit and Speller Bea, and chat and surf. The computers were tools to be used for school and as an education enhancer, not distractor, and they weren’t used as a babysitter or an escape from real life.

They came home from school and changed out of their uniforms (or soccer gear) and they either did their homework if they had been to sports practice, or they were ordered to go ride their bikes or go play outside and get some fresh air and exercise for at least an hour every afternoon. If the weather wasn’t good enough to go outside, they got dropped off at the base community center to shoot baskets, use the batting cages or swim. After we moved to the KC suburb of Roeland Park when the oldest was a freshman so they could have a contiguous high school experience, we kept a membership at the Roeland Park Aquatic Center and I would drop them off to swim, or we would go as a family.

My children are all in their twenties, and healthy and trim. When our daughter went back to work after Zoe was born she made no bones about it…”I want to go back to work, but I want you and Dad to take care of Zoe. I know you guys do good work.”

I have mentioned before that over a 24-year medical career, I saw a dramatic shift in the patient pool being treated for metabolic disorders. In the first fifteen years of my career,  I did not see a single case of Type II in a juvenile.  Toward the end, I routinely taught diabetic education counseling classes that were geared exclusively to groups of teenagers, who are not as amenable to lifestyle lectures. Each group contained between 15-30 kids. I saw a new sea of brown faces the same ninety minutes every week for six weeks, and a new group rotated in every two weeks.  That is a lot of diabetic kids.  And what I can tell you anecdotally is that every single one of the things that have gotten the blame for the epidemic, from lack of physical activity to fast food and soda pop as dietary staples, I have observed to exist, so this is a ‘big picture’ problem if ever there was one.    

Almost everything has changed in my lifetime, and not necessarily for the better. There are some things that my parents did better than most, and I am the mom whose kids trust her and didn’t run away (two of three live in my building, and the other one bought a house 14 blocks away) because I learned how to be a good parent from good parents.

The obesity epidemic in this nation is about to reach crisis proportions.

I grew up in the 60s and 70s. I was a beneficiary of school lunch programs before catsup was a vegetable.

Do you know why we ever had a school lunch program and community health departments in the first place?

It was a national security issue.

Americans showing up for duty during WWII who were malnourished, and after the war, Congress did something about it. They created the school lunch program, and every kid got one, regardless of ability to pay. It’s just common sense that underfed children are not good for social harmony and stability in society. We used to be smart enough to realize that.

Since the beginning of this nation, every generation has, on average, lived a little longer and enjoyed a little better quality of life than the generation before us. Now, with childhood obesity, that trend is in danger of reversing. If the arc continues on it’s current trajectory, kids like my children and grandchild will be the exception.

The war on the middle class that has been waged since Reagan did something that has always, throughout history, been considered off-limits by everyone except histories greatest monsters. It attacked the children, while simultaneously taking the weapons to fight back with away from the parents by destroying their economic security and transfering their hard-eared, modest wealth to the rich bastards.

Don’t ever try to tell me that the conservative movement as we know it today is not pure f***ing evil.