By Lisa M. Belisle, MD, MPH
Originally published March 1, 2007, Community Leader
Last summer, our neighborhood became a more enjoyable place to live. Already quite satisfying, our little corner of the world was further enriched by the August construction of a simple stretch of sidewalk. This paved walkway completed a 3.29 mile runnable/walkable/skippable/jumpable/mosey-able loop through the center of Yarmouth. It made it possible for all nearby schoolchildren (including two of my own) to get to our public schools safely on foot. It connected us with the rest of town.
Since August, upper Portland Street has experienced a mini-renaissance. It has become the hot place to hang. OK, that may be overstating it a bit, but not overly much. We’ve had all kinds of people pass by our house in the last seven months—toting toddlers, trailing terriers and sauntering solo. The sidewalk reinforces the Field of Dreams phenomenon: “if you build it, they will come.”
The Field of Dreams phenomenon is fairly intuitive. Make something attractive and accessible, and it becomes exciting and desirable—whether it is a ballpark in the middle of a cornfield, or a way to perambulate unscathed down a busy byway. A sidewalk is the perfect public health intervention. It is a means of promoting physical activity, people-powered transportation and neighborly interactions. Peter Maurin, an early twentieth century social activist, once said, “We need to make the kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.” We can’t just tell people what they should or shouldn’t be doing for their health. We need to make the positive options more appealing.
If we can make physical activity more appealing by building a sidewalk, we can likely offer more attractive options in the eating arena. Let’s start with an important captive audience: our schoolchildren. I have great respect for those who specialize in school nutrition. Given a limited budget and scores of fussy eaters, these fine people do an admirable job of filling our kids’ bellies on a daily basis.
Can we fill our kids’ bellies with more nutritious food? Probably. Studies suggest that many schoolchildren are eating meals that go overboard in the areas of fat, sugar, salt and preservatives. This is largely market driven: we are giving children what they want. Unfortunately this does not always correspond with what their growing minds and bodies need.
It is possible to convince kids that what they want and what they need is one in the same. Paul Cézanne said “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.” This is exactly what has happened with the Edible Schoolyard Project at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. Alice Waters, of the famed restaurant Chez Panisse, began this endeavor in 1997—creating a garden plot from a paved area. Children became involved in growing the fresh, nutritious produce that would later cross their own palates. They began eating healthier once they became invested in their edibles.
It makes sense to help children become invested in their edibles. Build people a sidewalk, they are more likely to exercise and connect with their neighbors; show them how to grow delicious, nutritious food, they are more likely to eat well. While schoolyard gardens may be challenging to construct in a cold-climate such as Maine’s, there are other options:
- pair schools with local farmers who engage in greenhouse growing,
- encourage schoolchildren and their families to be a part of their local community gardens, and
- have seasonally available locally-produced fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products in the school cafeteria.
Once we’ve encouraged schoolchildren to be more invested in their edibles, we should strive to do the same for all people. Perhaps we might sponsor transportation to local farmers’ markets or to farms that participate in Community Sponsored Agriculture (otherwise known as farm shares). At the very least, we can support local stores, restaurants and other businesses that make fresh local foods available to their patrons.
When we support local farmers, grow schoolyard gardens or put down walkways, we are creating the kind of society where it is easier to be good. We are making positive options more attractive, and healthier lives more possible. We are introducing people to the Field of Dreams as it exists in their own backyard.
As for me, it’s time for a stroll. See you on the sidewalk, my friends!
Healthy Cooking at MaineHealth Learning Resource Centers
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