Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).

 

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The Childhood Obesity Puzzle

What's making American kids fat? Some blame food deserts, while others implicate fast-food restaurants, lack of exercise, or poor parental eating habits. But a few recent studies seem to suggest that the childhood obesity epidemic may be more complicated than we thought.

In the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports that among kids under 13, burgers and fries are out, while yogurt, soup, and grilled chicken are in. This, she says, is good news:

To be sure, pizza, burgers, fries and kids’ meals are still the most popular items ordered by children; the percentage gains for items like soup and yogurt are from a smaller base. But the trends bolster an argument that children’s health researchers have made for years: if you offer more healthful food, kids will eat it.

But will they? Another recent study suggests that parental eating habits actually have little to do with kids' food choices. And according to a study released today by the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, household proximity to fast-food restaurants doesn't have much bearing on whether a child is obese, either. (And get this: The Purdue researchers found that living near a gym or rec center was actually associated with weight gain.)

So, what to make of these counterintuitive findings? While any one of these factors might not explain childhood obesity on its own, it's also not realistic to think of them as existing in a vacuum. Instead, they act in concert, along with other variables, like genetics. It's not totally out of the question that a kid who is genetically predisposed to obesity might also live near McDonald's and watch his dad eat Quarter Pounders three times a week. A wholistic study that figures out which factors matter most, and how they interact—that's a tall order. It'd take a long time, and a whole lot of research power to boot.

Till that happens, is it really useful to isolate these variables? Post your thoughts in the comments.

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Who's Thinner: Owners or Renters?

A new study from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School finds that women homeowners are an average of 12 pounds heavier than renters. They're also more aggravated and spend less time socializing.

Thing is, it's hard to tell why. Figuring it out, the article notes, presents a chicken-and-egg type problem, since two lines of homeowner reasoning are possible:

a) Now that I've gone and bought a house, I may as well make owning my house worthwhile by maxing and relaxing in it as much as humanly possible.

b) I really like maxing and relaxing. Much more than, say, going for a walk with my friends. Gosh, it'd be great to have my very own M&R temple.

Previous studies have shown that homeowners are happier than renters, but they didn't control for external factors, like whether or not the subjects have kids. This study did.

Have you recently switched from renting to owning or vice versa? What's it like?

HT @aarieff.

Burbank Residents: Disney's Dumping Made Us Sick

Last week, we learned that residents of Burbank, California, are suing Walt Disney Co. for allegedly dumping carcinogenic chemicals in a local stream. Now, the Glendale News Press reports, they're saying said chemicals caused both people and animals to become sick. Troubling, but so far it doesn't exactly sound like the stuff of epidemiological studies: 

Standing at the intersection of Parkside Avenue and Parish Place, Panuska gestured down several neighboring streets, pointing out the homes whose residents she said were diagnosed with various cancers, and listing off dozens of cases where horses, dogs and cats came down with various maladies...

On Beachwood Drive, plaintiff Dennis Weisenbaugh reflected on the life of his office manager, Gene Montoya, who two years ago died of liver failure after eight years of working eight-hour days from his home office.

Three of Weisenbaugh’s horses were diagnosed with diseases similar to laminitis, a painful inflammation of the foot, and had to be put down.

It's awfully hard to prove a causal relationship between toxic chemicals and a handful of illnesses in people and pets, and that ambiguity will certainly work in Disney's favor. The company still hasn't said much on the issue, other than to point out that a 2006 investigation by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found that chromium levels in the community weren't problematic. It'll be interesting to see whether the EPA agrees.

 

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, June 16

Hello, and happy Tuesday. Here's what's new in health, environment, and science:

Healthcare mythology day: In critiquing Obama's plans for more healthcare spending, conservatives revive two favorite chestnuts of anti-nationalization rhetoric. Meanwhile, Obama trots out his own old wives' tale, suggesting that restricting medical malpractice lawsuits could help reduce healthcare costs.

Geek out on futuristic climate solutions: Should we tether kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream to harvest its massive wind power? Maybe. Block out the sun to keep earth from heating up? Probably not.

Salacious wildlife news: An environmental group says Obama's nominee for head of the US Fish & Wildlife Service whored out panther habitat to sprawl-mongering developers. 

And one last question: Did you celebrate Meatless Monday?

Homeland Security High

Back in 2007, Mother Jones reported on Maryland’s Joppatowne High School, the first school in the country to offer a homeland security curriculum. Today, the L.A. Times reports on nearby Meade High School, which started a similar four-year program this year. According to the article, areas of study include Islamic jihadism, nuclear arms, cyber-crime, and domestic militias. But that’s not all:

New themes even were added to their science, social studies and English classes.

"There's a lot of homeland security issues in 'Romeo and Juliet,' " said Bill Sheppard, the program coordinator. "Like, how do you deal with infiltration in your own family?"

Cringe. Aside from these tortured efforts to give everything a security spin, here’s what bugs me: The L.A. Times describes Meade as a “long-troubled public high school.” According to the website Public School Review, almost a third of Meade’s 2,150 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and its graduation rate is just 82 percent, lower than the district average. The program’s website says part of its mission is to give students skills they need to “seek employment and/or postsecondary education in the homeland security career field.” I just can’t imagine a well-off school justifying what is essentially a political agenda with the promise of jobs. And it’s working. To wit:

"This course will help me get a top-secret security clearance," said Darryl Bagley, an eager 15-year-old. "That way I can always get a job."

Sort of chilling, right?

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