Monday, February 21, 2011

Under Pressure, Overweight

I recently came across two very different but worthwhile documentaries, Pressure Cooker and Killer at Large: Why Obesity is America's Greatest Threat. The three-day weekend (and my resolve to take some time off from school work) afforded me the time to watch them both (and, in case you were concerned, also engage in some physical activity).

Pressure Cooker follows the story of three high school seniors enrolled in a culinary arts program at an inner city school in Philadelphia. Under the guidance of a strict but loving instructor, they compete for scholarships that will enable them to pursue better opportunities. The three students are incredible to watch - they are smart and funny, honest and ambitious - and each deal with very difficult challenges in their home life. They work feverishly to perfect their technique in the kitchen to win the C-CAP scholarships and the result is an inspiring film that combines the suspense of Waiting for Superman with the passion and uplift of Mad Hot Ballroom.

Killer at Large, on the other hand, is far less hopeful. It features some familiar talking heads of food politics, like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, with some less recognizable ones, like "America's Rabbi" Shmuley Boteach, writer/director Neil LaBute, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona and President Bill Clinton. The film focuses on the problem of obesity in America, arguing that its magnitude and impact are greater than anyone has yet acknowledged, and presents a very comprehensive picture of the causes and factors contributing to the astonishing statistics today. Covering everything from body image to agricultural policy to evolutionary biology, Killer at Large doesn't seem to miss a single fat-related story - anecdotal, economic or political - in the past ten years. While much of it is neatly regurgitated from other documentaries in this "social concern" genre, I appreciated its scope and refusal to reduce the issues around obesity to any one underlying cause. I especially liked the section devoted to the marketing of junk food to children (see baby breastfeeding on a burger bun, to the right). According to one statistic cited, for every hour that a preschooler watches television, his/her risk of obesity increases 6% - every hour!

Docs like this can potentially reinforce the stigma surrounding obesity - hard to believe that there is still a stigma when nearly 65% of the U.S. population is overweight or obese - but Killer at Large does a good job at conveying that many cultural, political and biological forces are at play. It repeatedly argues that the problem isn't one of personal responsibility, but asserts that the solution is. But we all know it's not that simple. Given the enormity of the situation, it is unlikely that the obesity epidemic will be "fixed" anytime soon. Access to information, affordable healthy food, and time for physical activity are obstacles that need to be addressed. While Pressure Cooker highlights that low-income, inner city teens face tremendous barriers to achievement, the amount of ambition and hard work it takes still may not be enough to succeed. Only through the commitment, support and tough love of a teacher are these students able to rise above their circumstances. So who will be the teachers supporting the nation's diet and lifestyle changes? All I know is that every day I sit in class with 40 of them.

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