by Steve Willis
Although many like to joke about overeating and the rich fare at most church potlucks, the toll I had witnessed in our suburban Huntington congregation shook me to the core. Our people were literally dying.
Persuading church leaders to let me address the problem, however, took considerable discussion, explanation, and prayer. Thankfully, they came on board and as a result of one of the most delicate sermons I have ever had to preach, lives began to change.
At first, all we did was initiate some physical fitness and accountability groups. Yet, despite regular exercise, nearly a year later many folks were struggling to shed more than a few pounds.
Not sure what to do, one Sunday I prayed, “Lord, we need help. We need somebody to come and teach us nutrition. It’s going to cost and we don’t have a lot of money to pay someone for that. So we’re looking to You.”
The next day a man named Jason Skweres called me from Los Angeles. Introducing himself, he said he was with GCM Productions and asked if I knew Jamie Oliver. I hesitated.
“Have you ever heard of ‘The Naked Chef?'” Skweres asked.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of that show,” I replied. “My wife watches the Cooking Channel. I imagine he’s been on there.”
“We heard about what you’re doing there,” Skweres said, referring to media coverage of our weight-loss effort. The frequency of stories about our church’s health kick had grown exponentially after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report pinpointing our area as the unhealthiest in the nation.
“We work for Jamie,” he continued. “He read about the CDC report that showed your area was the worst in the United States for obesity problems. He wants to come to Huntington and teach people about nutrition.”
He explained that Oliver wanted to teach school lunch cooks how to prepare healthier meals and film a mini-series—similar to one Oliver had aired on Britain’s school lunch program.
Skweres said they needed a local contact, adding that as part of their visit they would teach our congregation about healthy cooking.
“When are you coming?” I asked.
“In two days.”
Talk about a quick answer to prayer! Jamie didn’t come to film the bulk of his mini-series for six more weeks, but in the meantime the crew had time-consuming groundwork.
After meeting with several producers, I persuaded community and political leaders that the company was here to help, not poke fun or expand our stereotypical image as poor, backward hillbillies.
We’re Number One!
The CDC report that lured Jamie Oliver to Huntington still makes me shudder.
Local purists protested that the city wasn’t labeled the nation’s fattest; it was really a five-county area spread over three states.
True, but residents of West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky living along the Ohio River freely interact and travel among these three states. With Huntington at the center of this five-county area, that distinction was barely worth noting.
Residents were suffering from the nation’s highest rates of obesity and numerous resulting illnesses. My personal experience bore out those statistics. People were dying and many were members of my church.
Lots of places boast about being first in athletics, academics, job creation or retail profits. Since success breeds success, being first in one often leads to greatness in another.
Unfortunately, the same can be said of negative environments. Our area was leading the nation in statistics where you don’t want to be first. When it comes to poor health, “We’re #1!” doesn’t exactly rev up the fan base.
Ironically, we all know that too much weight may kill us. Yet, each year we spend increasing amounts of money eating out. And, while Americans get fatter, children in Africa are dying for lack of food and other necessary resources. Imagine explaining that one away on judgment day!
Dr. David Kessler served as Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Listen to what he has to say about our love affair with food in “The End of Overeating:”
“When we talk about the complexity of American foods, we aren’t referring to the kind of complexity traditionally associated with fine cuisine or regional or ethnic cooking. The American complexity is based on layering and loading [with sugars, fats, and salt] rather than an intricate and subtle use of quality ingredients.”
Kessler suggests that major changes need to take place in American food systems or our nation is heading for a health care disaster. It is brewing nationwide.
This problem leaves us in quite a conundrum. While we overeat, the bulk of the foods we consume aren’t giving us the nutrients we need. Instead, they are making us fat and unhealthy. This is not the food system God intended for us.
The Good Fight
For such a monumental task, any one individual’s attempts may seem futile. I used to feel the same way. When I raised the issue in our church, I never dreamed that one day my sermon would be broadcast nationwide.
Before I spoke, I had asked myself, “What can one person do in the face of such a staggering situation?”
At that moment, I had to gather my resolve and determine to do what I could and leave the rest in God’s hands.
After all, if history has taught us anything, it is this: If just a few passionate individuals invest their faith and energy in a cause greater than self, then the One who is greater than any human can use those individuals to bring about real change, a revolution.
History is full of revolutions that have changed the destinies of peoples and nations. With God’s help, I see no reason why the same cannot happen here and now. All it takes is a few people willing to make a difference in the same way Christian retailers endure despite the obstacles they face.
Adapted from Winning the Food Fight by Steve Willis with Ken Walker, released Jan. 2, 2012 by Regal Books. For more information, see winningthefoodfight.com.