ANY CRISIS NEEDS A LOCAL CRUSADER, and, in the Oxford schools, Amy Murphy plays that role. At 30, she has been the director of child nutrition for two years, recently attracting attention for helping to land Oxford Elementary School a $40,000 grant from the CDC for a fruit and vegetable pilot program being administered by the Department of Agriculture. The program's hope is that escalating obesity rates in the state might be slowed, even reversed, if kids like Derrick Dennis can be sold on the idea that eating fruits in lieu of high-caloric, fatty foods is a smart thing.
"Five a day the Oxford way," Murphy says.
It's one of her favorite lines now. Five servings of fruits or vegetables a day for each student. Teachers now regularly talk to the youngest children about what to eat and how often. In a first-grade class at Bramlett Elementary, Vondelle Fairbanks drilled her students on nutrition factoids, instructing them to tell their mothers and fathers about the benefits of melons, kiwis and avocadoes. "What are you going to tell your parents?" she asked.
"Oh, my mother won't listen to that," said one child.
Murphy has tried to improve the quality of school meals by adding fruits, vegetables and low-fat meats to the menu. She supplements standard school meals that have items from all food groups, known as "trays," with tastier, more popular, generally fattier "extras," allowing kids to buy the extras only if they first purchase a tray. One day the extra is a personal Red Baron pepperoni pizza. Many kids purchase the tray merely to get a chance to devour the pizza, concluding their meal by trashing most of the tray's contents.
Murphy is undaunted, convinced that culture will yield in time to enlightenment, but only if the kids are exposed repeatedly to foods relatively new to many of them. "We're going to have to do whatever it takes," she says. "If it's not changed, obesity means there's going to be a diminished return on education -- more kids getting sick, diabetes, heart problems when they get older . . . Culture has something to do with it, but we've always had these foods in Mississippi. People didn't have this problem a long time ago. Why, suddenly, are obesity rates so high? Something happened."
What has happened, believes New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle (no relation to the chocolate maker), is that the voice of the food industry, particularly the sector selling chips and colas, long ago became overwhelmingly loud and persuasive. "The budgets between the good-food messages and the food industry's messages don't compare," she says, referring to studies that indicate explosive growth in food advertising to children in particular. "Kids get hit with 10,000 ads every year on TV -- ads for everything they don't need: sugared cereals, the potato chips, tortilla chips, candy, the cheeseburgers, every kind of fast food you can think of, the colas. The food industry spends more than $30 billion a year on promotion; the [federal] government spends no more than a few million on good-food messages."
Nestle's is a moderate voice, in many respects. She applauds McDonald's for incorporating salads into its menu and is pleased to see Ruby Tuesday listing the fat content of its dishes. But these efforts pale against the aggregate impact and power of the food industry, Nestle says.
And government benefits make many high-fat, high-caloric products cheaper still. Many crops -- whose uses range from entrees to junk-food sweeteners -- benefit from federal subsidies that make the goods that much more affordable for consumers and, in turn, encourage more consumption. "What subsidies do is simply lower the cost of the ingredients that go into processed foods, making it possible both for people to buy them in large quantities and for companies to sell cheap and maintain large profits," Nestle says. "The problem derives from there."
No crop is subsidized more heavily than corn, a major use of which these days is as a sweetener -- to be found in candy, snacks and colas, where it takes the form of high-fructose corn syrup. "The food companies have gotten a free ride," says Nestle, who contends that generous agricultural subsidies are a direct function of the food industry's political clout. "Until the federal government addresses the subsidy problem, not much will change."
"We don't think [the subsidy question] is the real issue," says Richard Martin of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a group that opposes any government proposals to curb food-industry advertising to children or to tax high-fat foods. "We don't force people to buy products. We are driven entirely by consumer demand, and people don't want restrictions. What really matters is how many calories people consume. Unless people are able and willing to expend enough energy in relation to calories, they'll gain weight. I don't really like the phrase 'personal responsibility,' but to a large degree it is an individual's responsibility. There are no simple answers."
The ultimate problem, contends Agriculture Undersecretary Eric Bost, is inertia. Bost would like to see local school boards eliminate vending machines in elementary schools (some states, including Mississippi, already bar vending machines in public schools, while others, including Virginia and Maryland, permit them) and include healthier fare in high school machines. He favors the restoration and enhancement of physical education programs in school systems.
In Oxford one May afternoon, high school football coach Eric Robertson looks out on a gym floor filled with kids in jeans and khakis playing a pickup basketball game. It is a gym class, though the students look as if they are dressed for a party. At Oxford High, there is no locker room or shower facility for regular PE; those niceties are reserved for team athletes. With PE not being mandatory there or at any other public high school in Mississippi, and with most students in the school declining to take the class, Robertson and other coaches need to sell the kids on the fun of fitness. This means listening when they generally say they don't want to run or do pushups. The kids, they keep getting bigger all the time, Robertson says.
It is what those involved in the obesity issue all over the state say, from Oxford to the impoverished towns along the Mississippi Delta, where the obesity problem is believed to be most acute. "In any place, but particularly in a poor area, parents often express their love for their children through food," says Kathleen Yadrick, an official with the Delta Nutrition Intervention Research Initiative. " 'Mama fed me a lot': You hear that often. The attitude can be: 'The more I feed you, the more I love you. And you won't get hungry. I might not have the big house on the hill, but I can give you all the food you want, and make it delicious, too.' "
Yadrick sat in a convenience mart in Hollandale, a small Delta town that has lost many of its businesses to outsourcing and whose city budget was too small to afford a fitness path at a local park. But Mayor Robert Buford and residents raised the money anyway, and now a modest one-eighth-mile walking track rings the children's playground. "Don't know how many people are going to use it when it gets real hot," Burford says. "But it's there when they want to. And we know we got a challenge we gotta do something about."
IN THE END, Deke Baskin thinks, maybe it comes down to this. Maybe truth is meant to be a hard, cold-sounding, redemptive thing. Maybe saying no is saying yes. A few hours after he has watched his daughter consume another large plate of fried catfish and hush puppies, a few hours after he has told his son-in-law yet again that he needs to rein in his wife's appetite, Deke sits down with his daughter at his house and says what he has been trying to work up the nerve to say for a while.
"Marie, you need to stop eating so much," he begins.
"I'm gonna try," she says, "but it's hard. I need some of this stuff."
It is what she always has said, more or less.
He thinks a second before letting loose with it: "Marie, I love you. But you need to lose weight for your children. Papa is not going to be here, and you aren't, either, if we don't lose weight and stop eating some of these things."
A shocked Marie says nothing for a long moment. Then she begins to cry. Deke cries, too.
"We have to do this together," Deke says. "Have to get on the treadmill together. Gotta think of your babies."
"You're right, I know you're right," Marie says. "It's just so hard." And they cry some more, before a new ache takes over in her. She can see herself staring out her back window, can see the Kroger store, can see clear through to the horizon, can picture McDonald's and Burger King. Can taste the Hershey almond bar and that new fried chicken sandwich. "It's powerful," she says.
"I know, I know," he whispers, ready to weep some more. He wants to give her solace, wants to fall back on words that provide comfort. And so he says it. He's making barbecue tomorrow. Hush yer mouth.
Michael Leahy is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
At 5 feet 9 and 296 pounds, 52-year-old Deke Baskins accepts that he has to lose weight to stay alive.
(Photograph by Silvia Otte)