George Ball: “Nothing to Lose But Our Waistlines”

Burpee 1901Many people realize that childhood obesity is a serious and growing problem, and many even ask, “But what can we do about it?” For parents, a great, big, wonderful answer is: Grow veggies! We’re looking today at a recent opinion piece in the The Wall Street Journal, written by George Ball, who urges us to make 2011 the “Year of the Vegetable.” The full disclosure here is that Ball is chairman of the W. Atlee Burpee Co. So it comes as no surprise that he speaks out in favor of vegetables. But, unlike many corporate spokespersons (who shall remain nameless in their shame), Ball has a public-spirited motive for wanting us to like his product. Because — and how rare this is — the product is actually good for us!

The Burpee name, of course, is instantly recognizable, and has been since 1876, when the seed company was founded. If there is a more authentic piece of Americana than the annual Burpee Catalogue, we don’t know what it is. In fact, the mental picture that springs to mind is a memory of Grandma settling down with a cup of tea and the latest catalogue, captivated by the possibilities, and dreaming of the garden she would plant when the weather broke.

Grandma was not alone. Over the decades, millions upon millions of gardening enthusiasts have shared the anticipatory excitement of the Burpee Catalogue pages while the wind howled, snow piled up on the windowsills, and icicles hung from the eaves. Today, of course, it’s all online, along with helpful articles like “Garden Inspiration,” “Growing Information,” and “Enjoy Your Garden.”

Ball starts out by affirming an all-too-familiar fact of modern life, that American children are suffering now from the effects of childhood obesity, and are at risk of suffering even more in the future, when poor eating habits take their toll and manifest as serious medical conditions. He quickly lists the usual suspects — too many vending machines full of junk, not enough home-cooked meals, the unwholesome propensity to throw every edible substance into the deep-fryer, and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle that so many of us, young and old, have fallen prey to. Ball says,

But whatever and whoever is to blame, it is surely not kids. We cannot expect children to make the right food choices when healthy foods are out of reach and nutrition-smart role models are not in evidence.

How does an adult become a worthy role model? By setting a good example — which many of us grownups are not doing. Ball points out that around 80% of adults, and that is nearly four out of five, scarcely let a vegetable pass through their lips. But our kids don’t have to grow up conforming to this unhealthful template, especially here in America where most of the population has access to fruit and vegetables, and a very large proportion of us are fortunate enough to have the space and the means to grow our own.

The secret is to start early. If we want our kids to “veg out,” in the nicest possible meaning of the phrase, we have to begin when they are young and vulnerable to the molding of both their minds and their palates. Ball says,

Liking vegetables is not a given: Every food other than breast milk is an acquired taste. But children can easily learn to enjoy eating their greens. It’s simply a matter of education and familiarity — as in ‘family.’ Children will happily eat squash, artichoke or broccoli, to the delight of the parents who taught them to do so.

Store-bought fruits and vegetables are better than none, of course, and one of the secrets to growing healthy children is to keep fresh produce easily available, while barring junky pseudo-foods from the home. An even better idea is to make a family project of growing real, live, natural foods. The Atlee Burpee company’s research has shown that this actually works. And you don’t even need a big backyard. Plug the word “container” into the website’s search box, and it gives back 450 results.

It’s a very unusual child who is impervious to the delight of planting a tiny seed, and watching the progress of a green living thing as it pokes out of the soil and magically adds leaves to itself while growing taller. One way to defeat childhood obesity is to help children discover the miracle of food right from the start: A little speck of matter that comes in a package and, with the right care, transforms itself into a tasty snack. As the company information page says,

Despite the invention of the radio, television, cell phone and Ipods, nothing is more amazing and powerful than the enchantment of planting a seed in soil and watching it grow. We, at Burpee, certainly did not invent it, but we have been dedicated to enabling you to share, in a very small but significant way, in the astonishing magic of nature.

When George Ball was president of the American Horticultural Society, he started up a gardening program for children, and hosted an annual symposium to show community gardeners and teachers how such programs work. He would like to see more neighborhood groups, community centers, schools, and churches involved in these efforts, as well as parents at home. One of the many things about gardening that delights him is its “deliciously bipartisan” nature. There is nothing about growing food that anyone of any political stripe could possibly object to, and plenty about it for everyone to love. And, as George Ball says, “We have nothing to lose but our waistlines.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “2011: The Year of the Vegetable,” The Wall Street Journal, 01/03/11
Source: “About Burpee,”
Screen capture of Burpee’s 1901 catalogue used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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