Weighing in on culture of obesity




Two Penn researchers are combatting the problem of our society’s culture of obesity in an innovative way — by partnering universities with the community.

Netter Center Founding Director and Associate Vice President Ira Harkavy and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Francis Johnston described their research and findings on the culture of obesity in a panel discussion at the Bookstore last night. The two argued that the idea of partnership between a university and its community is vital in combatting the issue of obesity locally.

As Harkavy and Johnston state in their recent book titled The Obesity Culture: Strategies for Change, Public Health and University-Community Partnerships, the culture of obesity is a massive and complex problem in our society today that links health with cultural factors. Obesity, as Johnston said, is the “greatest public health failure of the 20th century,” however it is something that is rarely understood and cannot be solved easily.

Both Harkavy and Johnston made it clear that they do not propose a definite answer to the problem of obesity. However, they are implementing programs that have displayed some levels of success. Their Agaston Urban Nutrition Initiative, for example, works closely with kids throughout their educational careers to instill lifelong lessons regarding health and a greater civic awareness. This program involves parents, students and community leaders.

Many audience members participated in the discussion throughout the event. Jodi Ferguson, a Penn alumna and current teacher in Philadelphia, said she was especially interested in the topic because she sees the link between obesity and education every day at work.

“Problems cannot be solved in the community unless the community and university establish a close partnership,” she said. “We have to integrate ourselves into the community and essentially become part of it.”

Bookstore Events and Marketing Manager Risa Levitte said she appreciated the way the speakers presented their work.

“The way in which Drs. Harkavy and Johnston discussed the general preface of their research and their involvement in the West Philadelphia neighborhoods was fantastic,” she said.

Among those that were present in the event was Fran De La Torre, a Penn alumna and School of Education graduate. She said she is “really interested in the way in which education plays a major part in solving such a complex dilemma.”

As Harkavy stated in his concluding remarks, changing the situation is the only way we can fully learn from it.

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