The Magazine

Michelle’s Machine

Churches get roped into the first lady’s obesity crusade.

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
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Form an outreach group with a goal of helping eligible congregants sign up for SNAP. Train staff and volunteers at your congregation or organization with basic information about SNAP and how to apply. Have an information table before and after services where volunteers help eligible congregants apply for SNAP. Your local SNAP office can partner with you and help provide training and materials. .  .  . Consider displaying SNAP posters, flyers, magnets, and other materials in your place of worship or organization. .  .  . Put SNAP information in all bulletins, newsletters, and other print and electronic items shared with the congregation or community. If your organization manages a food pantry, include SNAP information with food that you distribute. .  .  . Give out recipe cards that also include information about SNAP.

This approach is a marked departure from the original purpose of the White House faith-based initiative. Launched at the outset of President George W. Bush’s first term, the initiative was largely intended to allow religious entities to compete on an equal footing with secular ones for grants to deliver social services. When it came to treating addicts, rehabilitating prisoners, mentoring children, sheltering the homeless, and, yes, feeding the hungry, the Bush administration argued that faith-based organizations often had better records of efficiency and compassion than government programs. But rather than reducing the public’s dependence on government-run programs by empowering faith-based organizations, this White House seems to view churches, synagogues, and so on as tools to increase reliance on programs designed in Washington.

“They’re turning this on its head,” said Rev. Richard Land, who handles public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention. The wisdom of the original faith-based initiative—about which he was initially skeptical, Land explains—was “to have people who live in a zip code making the decisions about what are the best ways to alleviate the problem in that zip code,” rather than being pushed to follow some federal initiative. Under the Obama administration, Land said, “the White House says what your priorities should be.” He added, “If Bush had proposed what Obama has proposed, they would have been putting Prozac in the water at the ACLU.”

Requests for on-the-record comment from the faith-based office at the Department of Health and Human Services brought no response. But one defender of the Obamas’ plan—New York state senator Rubén Díaz Sr., a Democrat from the South Bronx and an evangelical pastor—says that clergy have an obligation to use their influence to do “anything that will benefit the lives of our people,” including combating childhood obesity. Though Díaz says he doesn’t “want this to be used as a political platform,” he believes “churches are better than anybody to do these things.”

But even if Díaz is right, is the Obamas’ approach the best way to involve churches in the fight against childhood obesity and poor nutrition? After all, any group of people can organize an exercise club, host a farmers’ market, or teach a cooking class. And government already spends millions of dollars every year just getting people signed up for welfare benefits. Having churches do this work makes sense only if one views them as a particularly effective instrument of community organizing—as the Obamas seem to. 

This view, however, fails to recognize what is so powerful about houses of worship and to understand their unique role in the lives of the faithful and the nation. Churches—unlike secular civic groups or government programs—speak to Americans about temptation and temperance, sin and redemption, repentance and love. Without apology, the various faiths and denominations, each in its own way, present to their followers a coherent vision of a well-ordered life—whether they focus on character, will power, and self-discipline or on God’s grace as the way to achieve it. Over thousands of years, religious institutions have held out spiritual renewal as the predicate to turning lives around; they alone can preach a message of personal transformation.

And this, more than any sustainable garden, is what’s required to keep American kids at a healthy weight. Many of the places where childhood obesity is most prevalent—poor urban neighborhoods, African-American and Hispanic communities—are also those that have been most devastated by the breakdown of the family. The behavior patterns that contribute to childhood obesity—lack of supervision, too many meals eaten outside the home, a dearth of physical activity—are related to a shortage of adult attention and investment in children’s health and good habits. The evidence suggests that keeping families intact and having parents take more responsibility for their children are beneficial to children’s health.

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