By Steve Waring
A coalition of Wisconsin faith leaders will help develop a curriculum for churches, synagogues and other places of worship to help further Let’s Move, First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to promote healthy eating habits and reduce childhood obesity. The new council, which includes several Episcopalians, was introduced at a press conference August 28 at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin.
“What better way to engage obesity than through faith leaders partnering to educate families about children’s nutrition,” said the Rev. Scott Stoner, president and executive director of Living Compass, a spiritual and personal fitness coaching organization based in Glendale. Stoner, an Episcopal priest who left parish ministry about four years ago, entered his first marathon in Chicago in 1980 while he was attending Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. He recently completed his 48th.
Faith leaders bring a moral authority to the battle against childhood obesity, said the Rev. Beth Abbott, pastor of St. Luke’s United Church of Christ in South Milwaukee. She said the United Church of Christ has officially condemned the “caloric mountains of food that marketers are shoving at children.”
While the newly introduced council was united in its belief that the faith community had an important role to play in the battle to overcome childhood obesity, the Rev. Ernest J. Garrison, pastor of Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Racine, said that efforts to offer children health food choices should begin with what the church feeds its own flock.
“Some of the worst food is church food,” he said. “I know they mean well, but my goodness. Have you looked at what most churches offer? There is a real opportunity right there to begin educating members.”
Acknowledging her own faith’s issues with food, Rabbi Dena Feingold of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha likened ending the childhood obesity epidemic with “a new form of dietary kosher laws” in its importance to public health.
Childhood obesity is one of the First Lady’s top concerns, said Max Finberg, senior policy adviser with the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Domestic Policy Council based in Washington, D.C.
Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizen’s Health Initiative and adjunct assistant professor at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that 20 years ago local faith councils like the trial one being set up in Wisconsin helped lead to bans on smoking in public areas. He said that the intention is to create a number of volunteer councils throughout the country. Each council would have an opportunity to contribute toward a healthy eating curriculum which would then be available for faith communities to implement.
“Wisconsin is an important place to start,” he said.
Matthew Ellis, executive director with National Episcopal Health Ministries, said some members appointed to the council have worked together for a number of years. Others initially came together in Milwaukee last May at a conference sponsored by NEHM. According to information on its website, the purpose of NEHM is “to promote health ministry in Episcopal congregations, assisting them to reclaim the Gospel imperative of health and wholeness.”
“This is very much a grassroots movement with different models in different localities,” Ellis said.
Photo of Ernest J. Garrison, pastor of Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church, by Rick Bate.