Courtland Milloy has written for the Washington Post since 1975. A southerner by birth and an advocate for the people of DC by trade, Milloy decided to do something radical in response to our city’s obesity gap.
Here are some of the frightening DC Dept of Health stats he cites. In Wards 7 and 8, more than 70% of residents are obese. And if “Ward 7” doesn’t mean something to you, this chart from DC Health Matters can clarify the demographics: 92% of Ward 7 residents identify as black/African American.
Ward 8 has nearly identical demographics. Milloy goes on to cite the fact that while fewer than 1 in 10 white DC residents are obese, things are startlingly different for black people who call the same city home: 1 in 3 are obese.
The obesity gap is real in our city, and a serious health crisis. It’s such a complex problem, involving food deserts, wage gaps, access to higher education and professional jobs, gentrification, the politics of development, education funding, housing policy, the chaos of our medical insurance systems, social history, long-time campaigns against enfranchisement, DC voting rights, advertising, and, obviously, giant doses of systemic and historic racism.
One could feel overwhelmed. But Courtland Milloy decided to do something. Back in December, he announced his “get-fit manifesto,” in which he declared that he would go vegan, dropping his sadly typical American diet of sweet tea with cheese on top and processed and fast food with the help of GreenFare Organic Cafe. The popular Herndon eatery features organic whole plant food, locally and sustainably prepared. Milloy joined GreenFare’s 21-Day Kickstart program, and he writes about the happy results he’s already experienced here.
It might sound extreme, but in Milloy’s view–for himself, for DC residents, for so many Americans–making big lifestyle changes is worth it, “because the alternative is death.”
“Racial conversations are hard to have,” Milloy has said, and as a former teacher and proud resident of South Arlington, I can quietly nod my head at those words from a person who’s been at the center of those conversations since before I was born. Milloy’s been a controversial figure in DC for years, with fervent supporters, angry critics, and those who dismiss him as out of touch. I’ve experienced my own ups and downs in my relationship with Milloy as a reader of his column, but I’ve always looked up from his work with a new, if temporarily unwelcome, perspective. Promoting better health is a campaign it’s hard to disagree with. I think even Milloy’s critics won’t have much to complain about.
Returning to the difficulty of having racial conversations, in my own experience, that challenge often feels so dangerous that it shuts people down. Race, bias, power structures: these are factors that make negotiating American life in 2019 so complicated that we can easily get overwhelmed and retreat to our own little demographic safety zones. The Washington City Paper did a nice long piece on Milloy about ten years back that sheds a little light on some of these complications. Seeing Milloy make such a big life change is a reminder of what we all want for ourselves and our families: the best chance at health and happiness. But I’m not saying I’m relieved that Milloy has turned in this more universal direction–far from it. I know that I personally am more able to hear and understand complicated stories of equity, access, race, and gender than I was ten or twenty years ago. We have to keep finding ways to have these conversations–all of them, whether they’re easy to get behind, like eating healthy, or make each of us cringe and wonder if we’re really quite as righteous as we think we are. You can read more of Milloy’s work here.
Anyway, it’s hard to change your eating habits after years and years, but, well, so is raising kids, and you’re doing that. Whether you want to shake up your own eating habits, or you want to raise your voice to your elected representatives about the importance of policies that promote health for ALL people, maybe Courtland Milloy’s hard work can inspire you.
This almost-70-year-old man with a lifelong determination to speak for the powerless, to voice the unpopular, and to needle people into confronting change inspires me.