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NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC - SUGAR LOVE

Sugar Love: A Not So Sweet Tale - FREE Feature Download

2013-August-Sugar-Love.jpg

We were smitten 10,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea. Today the average American downs 22.7 teaspoons a day.

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They had to go. The Coke machine, the snack machine, the deep fryer. Hoisted and dragged through the halls and out to the curb, they sat with other trash beneath gray, forlorn skies behind Kirkpatrick Elementary, one of a handful of primary schools in Clarksdale, Mississippi. That was seven years ago, when administrators first recognized the magnitude of the problem. Clarksdale, a storied delta town that gave us the golden age of the Delta blues, its cotton fields and flatlands rolling to the river, its Victorian mansions still beautiful, is at the center of a colossal American health crisis. High rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease: the legacy, some experts say, of sugar, a crop that brought the ancestors of most Clarksdale residents to this hemisphere in chains. “We knew we had to do something,” Kirkpatrick principal SuzAnne Walton told me.

Walton, Clarksdale born and bred, was leading me through the school, discussing ways the faculty is trying to help students—baked instead of fried, fruit instead of candy—most of whom have two meals a day in the lunchroom. She was wearing scrubs—standard Monday dress for teachers, to reinforce the school’s commitment to health and wellness. The student body is 91 percent African American, 7 percent white, “and three Latinos”—the remaining 2 percent. “These kids eat what they’re given, and too often it’s the sweetest, cheapest foods: cakes, creams, candy. It had to change. It was about the students,” she explained.

Take, for example, Nicholas Scurlock, who had recently begun his first year at Oakhurst Middle School. Nick, just tall enough to ride the coaster at the bigger amusement parks, had been 135 pounds going into fifth grade. “He was terrified of gym,” Principal Walton told me. “There was trouble running, trouble breathing—the kid had it all.”

“Of course, I’m not one to judge,” Walton added, laughing, slapping her thighs. “I’m a big woman myself.”

I met Nick in the lunchroom, where he sat beside his mother, Warkeyie Jones, a striking 38-year-old. Jones told me she had changed her own eating habits to help herself and to serve as an example for Nick. “I used to snack on sweets all day, ’cause I sit at a desk, and what else are you going to do? But I’ve switched to celery,” she told me. “People say, ‘You’re doing it ’cause you’ve got a boyfriend.’ And I say, ‘No, I’m doing it ’cause I want to live and be healthy.’”

Take a cup of water, add sugar to the brim, let it sit for five hours. When you return, you’ll see that the crystals have settled on the bottom of the glass. Clarksdale, a big town in one of the fattest counties, in the fattest state, in the fattest industrialized nation in the world, is the bottom of the American drink, where the sugar settles in the bodies of kids like Nick Scurlock—the legacy of sweets in the shape of a boy.

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Rich Cohen’s ninth book, on the 1985 Chicago Bears, will appear in October. Robert Clark’s story on the Denisovans was published last month.


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