Columbia Journalism Review

“A kids’ magazine takes on obesity” – by Trudy Lieberman

Every now and then a throwback to the legacy media comes along and reminds us that not all of the old-fashioned stuff has gone away, and some of it can be darn good. A case in point is ChopChop, a relatively new kids’ magazine (and brand new to me, as I learned about it last week from a Boston food writer). ChopChop is beautiful, engaging, empowers kids to cook and eat healthy foods, offers recipes even adult foodies will love, and aims to help reduce childhood obesity—the coming scourge of the health care system. For doing all this, ChopChop deserves a CJR laurel.

What does this have to do with health policy, you might be asking. The answer is a lot. In America, where more than one-third of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, stopping obesity in kids long before they become young adults with health problems is crucial. Efforts like ChopChop’s are significant. Illness and death resulting from too much of the wrong foods contribute mightily to the growing US health care bill threatening the stability of government programs like Medicare and Medicaid and contributing to the high insurance premiums the rest of us must pay.

ChopChop is the brainchild of cookbook author Sally Sampson who was casting about for ways to use her skills to do something about obesity. She approached Dr. Barry Zuckerman, chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, who loved her idea and suggested it was a natural for pediatricians’ offices. And so ChopChop was born three years ago with an initial print run of 150,000. (The Boston Globe ran a business page story soon after the magazine debuted). Today its circulation is half a million with a new distribution strategy. “We changed the model to be where kids are,” Sampson said. That means schools, community centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other groups that serve low-income children. Half the magazines go to doctors’ offices and organizations and the rest are bulk sales. Of course, the public can buy a subscription too.

Sampson wants to “change eating habits one bite at a time” and encourage families to eat together. She believes people don’t cook anymore, but if kids can bring the magazine home and ask “can we roast carrots,” that’s a step in the right direction. The fall issue featured a family dinner and showed a family dining on roast chicken with roasted root vegetables like onions, carrots and sweet potatoes. There was a recipe for basic chicken soup that encourages the kids to use left over chicken and offers riffs on the soup—curried chicken soup, tortilla soup, tortellini soup.

Sampson and editor Catherine Newman create most of the recipes. You would expect that someone who has authored 20 cookbooks (Sampson) knows a thing or two about that. The magazine’s emphasis on foods from other countries is impressive. Ingredients are not esoteric, hard-to-get, or expensive.

Snack foods don’t get short shrift, but the focus is on healthy ones like crispy kale, roasted chickpeas, pumpkin pie smoothies made with low-fat yogurt, canned pumpkin puree, bananas, and pumpkin pie spices, and celery filled with peanut butter. The hope is kids will learn to make these foods, like them, and choose them over Cheetos.

What impressed me is that ChopChop teaches empathy and diversity along with nutrition information and cooking skills. “We want everyone, no matter who you are, to look at the photos and think this could be you,” Sampson told me. Younger kids are shown with older adults; one photo showed a child sitting in a wheelchair. There was a Q and A with Teen Chef G, a thirteen-year-old named Georgia Cantanese who lost her mother and started cooking healthy food when her dad had a stroke. She keeps her mom’s memory alive by sharing her recipes on Facebook.

You won’t find ads in ChopChop for Coca-Cola or Volcano Tacos. ChopChop doesn’t take them. “The goal of most magazines is to get advertising and make money,” Sampson says. “Ours is to give it away.”

The magazine, which comes out quarterly, is funded primarily through foundation grants. It’s encouraging to see that hospitals are also among ChopChop’s funders—including Boston Medical Center, Tufts Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Cleveland Clinic’s Children’s Hospital. A small clue, perhaps, that the medical business is coming to realize there’s more to good health than the latest and greatest imaging machine.

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