By Laurie Sterbens
For Hometown News
It's no secret that America has a childhood obesity problem. According to letsmove.gov, the website for first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative, nearly one in three children in this country are overweight or obese, and statistics are even higher for African American and Hispanic children, 40 percent of whom are overweight or obese.
If the trend continues, one-third of American children born after 2000 will suffer from diabetes, and many others will face heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma and cancer.
For Camille and Omar Brown of Daytona Beach, the road to a healthier future begins in their own neighborhood with a smoothie. The Browns recently founded Midtown EcoVillage, Inc., a grassroots, nonprofit organization to advocate healthy lifestyles, environmental sustainability and community solidarity.
"Infusing our love of family, fitness and organic food, we strive to serve our community in innovative ways," the Browns say on their website.
Have blender, will travel
The effort began in August, when the Browns volunteered to provide fresh juices and smoothies at the mayor's backpack giveaway for area children.
"Midtown EcoVillage was really formed the night before," Ms. Brown said. "We stayed up the night before and made this homemade banner."
A city health fair followed, and "we just kept doing little events," she said.
They are still in the process of obtaining 501C3 non-profit status for the organization, so the couple has used their own funds and small private donations to fund their efforts to date.
"People know what I'm doing and people keep giving me tools to help me do it," Ms. Brown said.
The Browns' motto could be "have blender, will travel," as they've volunteered time and smoothies at schools, churches, parties and other events. They also led a community cleanup on Keach Street and participated in Hallogreen, an event sponsored by another local organization, Florida EcoNet, for which Omar Brown is a board member.
The Browns volunteer as parent leaders for Pyramid Cafe, a Healthy Start program aimed at strengthening families, and work with teen mothers at Chiles Academy. They make it a priority to attend as many events and meetings as possible and serve on boards to raise awareness of their efforts as well as to form alliances with related organizations.
"We realize the task we're undertaking cannot be undertaken by Midtown EcoVillage alone, so we run ourselves ragged going to all of these meetings," Ms. Brown said. "We want to link everything together."
A native of Daytona Beach, where she was crowned Miss Mainland in 1996 at Mainland High School, it was perhaps the perspective she obtained from living elsewhere that sparked Camille Holder-Brown's passion for bringing healthy food to her community. After receiving a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Miami and an M.F.A. in Filmmaking from Howard University in Washington, D.C., Ms. Brown moved to New York, where she pursued filmmaking projects including "A Period Piece," an award-winning comedy about a girl afraid of getting her period.
During a visit home to see her mother in March, Ms. Brown realized how much she missed Florida. Meanwhile, Omar, who was laid off after 10 years as a computer network engineer, was beginning to focus more on his passion for being a community activist and growing food. By May, the couple had relocated their family of five to Daytona Beach, where they settled in the Pine Haven neighborhood.
'It's a food desert'
Food shopping locally was a shock to Ms. Brown, after having had easy access to farmers markets and retail outlets such as Whole Foods. At one store, she requested soymilk and was shown soy sauce.
"That showed me the community didn't know what we were talking about," she said. "We were in a food desert."
In one grocery store, she was so appalled to find diced ham and sugary drinks side by side with produce that she began snapping pictures until she was asked to leave.
"Everything was so junky, it makes you not even want to buy produce," she said.
Though the Browns are educating children about the importance of fruits and vegetables and how good they can taste by providing free smoothies, promoting healthy lifestyle changes involves much more in a community with easier access to fast food than fresh vegetables.
"If people do not know that eating convenience store food and Chinese food and fast food leads to all these illnesses, that's a lack of education," Ms. Brown said.
Even if people know the risks of eating fast food, the cost and lack of access to fresh produce can make healthier options less attractive, especially if the produce is of inferior quality or not attractively displayed.
"People don't want to buy stuff that's expensive and looks bad," she said.
Ms. Brown said it takes a change in attitude to bring about change in the availability of healthier, better quality food in stores.
"There is this mentality of complaining and not having the ability to write a letter to change," she said. "'This is the way it is, we can't change it.' 'We're just going to go to church and pray that it changes.'"
Ms. Brown said people should not give up so easily.
"We don't have to buy anything from these fools," she said, referring to retailers who don't provide healthy choices. "Unless you demand change, it doesn't come."
Another obstacle in the path to getting families to eat healthier is the attitude of the parents, according to Sue Hewlings, PhD, RD, assistant professor at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. Busy schedules make fast food an easy option unless the parents are committed to healthier choices.
"The kids are like sponges; they love learning all the information," Dr. Hewlings said. "The biggest problem is getting the whole family involved, particularly the parents."
A healthy home
As they continue to volunteer, hand out smoothies and work toward 501C3 status that would allow them to apply for grants, the Browns are seeking private donations and working toward building a home for Midtown Ecovillage. Ms. Brown said their vision for the facility, which they'd like to be built by volunteers using sustainable materials, is a two-story building with a juice bar and space to teach children's cooking classes and produce a kids' cooking show, host Sunday jazz brunches and poetry readings. They would like to base a food co-op in the building as well as offer a limited stock of healthy food items.
In the meantime, on Dec. 17 from 3 to 8 p.m., Midtown Ecovillage is kicking off what they hope will become a monthly "smoothies and movies" event in Daisy Stocking Park at 550 Third Street, Daytona Beach. The free event will feature outdoor movies, health screenings, zumba and yoga demonstrations, smoothie samples. Vegetarian and vegan food will be available for purchase.
For more information about Midtown Ecovillage and upcoming events, visit www.midtownecovillage.org or call (386) 227-7393.