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Nutrition's Newest Superhero

The United States Department of Agriculture gets wise to what local health educators already knew—nobody eats off a pyramid.

What if America's fight against childhood obesity — our fastest growing epidemic — had a superhero? Maybe she would have green hair. The POWER of FIBER. An anti-oxidant gun. 

Depending on who you ask, the field's already stacked with supervillians. Among them: a redheaded clown, a bald one in a box, a colonial dandy and an innocent-looking little girl in pigtails — and that's just on Hesperian Boulevard. 

Though she didn't reveal any masked men, First Lady Michelle Obama did unveil a bold new beacon in the fight against obesity recently, announcing that the USDA would replace its tired food pyramid with something most Americans will find more familiar: a plate. 

And while the vistas at Giza and Teotihuacan may still evoke plates heaped with spaghetti and leaves of Swiss cheese for years to come (or not), the My Plate icon already has its devotees.

Among them are the folks at Kaiser Permanente, who have been using a version of the same plate for 25 years as a part of their "The Best Me" educational theater program, which played to a packed house at Hesperian Elementary School earlier this month (see video). 

The Best Me uses dance, rhymes and silly costumes to get kids energized about staying active and making healthy food choices. And it does a surprisingly good job of making the message stick, whether that message is about limiting screen time (TV, computer and videogames) to two hours a day or eschewing soda and sugary juice drinks in favor good ol' H2O.

Soda may be tempting, but it doesn't measure up. 

Chocolate milk — that's just soda in disguise. 

"Cool food" isn't cool if you can't pronounce the ingredients. 

And so on.

The characters in Best Me have a lot in common with kids at Hesperian. Like Tino, fourth graders Jorge and Jose love soccer — like, love it — and like him they switch eagerly between Spanish and English in describing their singular passion. 

Like Kayla, many are kept inside by parents afraid their neighborhood's not safe. And like Dani, they're faced with too few good choices and statistically certain to have a family member or friend living with Type II diabetes.

Which is to say, they're fighting an uphill battle. A full 36 percent of students in the are overweight or obese, according to the 2010 Health of Alameda County Cities and Places Report. That's one of the highest rates in the county and significantly above the national average. (Nearly 34 percent of students in the are overweight.)

The area leads the county for diabetes mortality and heart disease and stroke rates are similarly elevated. 

"That's why we're here," said Arleen Francisco, a Kaiser community benefit program specialist in the south county. 

Though the plate won't solve the systemic problems surrounding childhood obesity — lack of access to fresh, healthy foods, a dearth of safe places to play outside, and a sedentary culture obsessed with its screens — it does make healthy eating simple enough for first graders to get it. 

And that, though not super, is certainly a start. 

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