The Cincinnati Children’s surgeon and activist on the complex local challenges of food, poverty, and social justice.
interview by Bryn Mooth
photograph by Michael Wilson
How do you connect food with larger social issues?
How we eat and what we eat very much has an influence on the environment. The way we are currently farming is unsustainable and has major implications in social justice, the elimination of the small farmer, and the way big farms are consuming our soil and water. This influences my thinking and my eating. When we buy our food, we should have social justice and ethics on our mind.
What drew you to become active
in tackling the challenges of violence and poverty in Cincinnati and beyond?
When I first came here, the number of children with gunshot wounds was maybe one or two a year; the tipping point was when we had 55 children coming in with gunshot wounds, some of them with repeat wounds. As head of the trauma program, I’m here to prevent injuries, not just sew them up.
What does food insecurity look like in our community?
It varies. There are those who are hungry, and those who will sequester food. I remember a child I paid a home visit to, who had been shot and I treated. I went with a colleague, and he pulled out four shopping bags and conspicuously walked over to the mother of the child and gave them to her. I asked, “Why did you do that?” He said, “There’s no food in the house.” He wanted to do it in a conspicuous way to show the neighbors what helping each other looks like
Food scarcity shows up most often as obesity: African-American children born after 2001 have a 40% chance of developing Type 2 diabetes and one quarter of Hispanics. What links those demographics is that they live in poverty because of segregation.
Poor neighborhoods are perfectly designed for food insecurity. There is an abundance of poor food — fast food restaurants, mom and pop stores that have chips and pop and so forth. Families don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. And toxic stress in these neighborhoods—concentrated poverty, violence, family instability, disadvantage—causes people to seek comfort foods.
What gives you hope?
With the advances in tech and science, we understand that these are not just hard problems; they’re complex. John Gardner says, “These are great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”
Born: 1947 in New York City
Home: Mt. Carmel
Marital status: Married to Gail
Career path: B.A. in engineering from West Point (one of 5 black students in his class); M.D. from University of Pennsylvania. Served 20 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as surgery chief at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Founded Cincinnati Children’s trauma center; led development of the first Pediatric Weight Loss Surgery Center. Co-founder, Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence. Co-founder, Waterfields LLC. 2017 Great Living Cincinnatian honoree.
Bryn’s long career in publishing took a left turn sometime around 2010, when she discovered the joy of food writing. Since then, she’s found professional nirvana as the editor of Edible Ohio Valley, author of The Findlay Market Cookbook, and occasional instructor at The Cooking School at Jungle Jim’s. Find her seasonal recipes at writes4food.com.