Nationally known African-American talk show host Tavis Smiley brought his Road to Health Wellness Expo to the Oakland Convention Center recently, with hundreds of residents turning out to the downtown facility on May 11 and 12 to hear presentations on various aspects of healthy living, sample food and products, and get free medical testing by representatives of local health clinics and medical facilities.
Oakland was the last stop in a four-city spring tour for the Smiley Wellness Expo, with earlier stops in Baltimore, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. The Oakland event was primarily sponsored by Kaiser Permanente and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Smiley said that the expo offered “one of the few places these days where you can come and get things for free.” He said that in four years of the expo’s operation, “we have not had one time where at least one person’s life had not been saved by the testing.”
Twice after being tested at previous expos, he said, people discovered that their health was in such bad shape “they had to go directly from the floor to a hospital.”
But other press conference participants gave out a bleak assessment of the current state of health and health care.
Dr. Dwayne Proctor, senior program officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the sponsors of the Oakland expo, said that the current generation “could be the first American generation to live sicker and die earlier than the previous generation.”
Roy Combs, Oakland Unified School District general counsel, gave out a set of sobering health statistics on the district, saying that some 16,000 of its 45,000 K-12 student population is overweight, with 7,000 suffering from asthma and 7,000 with no health care at all.
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums called the health problems in the country and the world “an incredible challenge. We need to fashion a solution not to the size of the available funding, but to the size of the problem.” Dellums said that for their own sake, Americans can no longer afford to ignore health problems either in poor communities within the country or in other countries. “This is an increasingly tiny world, interrelated and interdependent,” the mayor said. “There is a universal health vulnerability. Someone can cough in one country today and a couple of days later, someone in another country can die as a result of that cough.”
Repeating the old environmentalist slogan, Dellums said that “while we have to think globally and act locally, our health security ultimately stands outside of our local communities. To preserve our own health, we need to solve the health problems everywhere. We need to address the issues of environmental degradation, hunger, and poverty that are driving the health crisis.”
Bernard Tyson, executive vice president with Kaiser Permanente, another major expo sponsor, thanked Mayor Dellums for the city’s cooperation in the event, saying, “most mayors just show up for the press briefing for these events, and that’s it. But Mayor Dellums has been a full participant.”
Smiley called Oakland “a great place to wrap up the tour; we’re glad to be in a city where we are welcomed.”
While the theme for each day of the two-day event was identical—with an emphasis on how minority citizens, particularly Latino and African-American, can make affordable personal lifestyle choices to improve their health—the energy level in each of the two days was distinctly different.
Friday was youth day, with the AC Transit District and the Oakland Unified School District cooperating to bring in busloads of local middle school students. Scores of students in powder blue “Tavis Smiley Presents Health & Wellness Expo” T-shirts roamed the floor of the convention center, doing double-dutch rope-jumping at the Oakland Office of Parks & Recreation pavilion, lining up to go up the artificial rock-climbing wall, or crowding around a platform where one local cook was preparing a dish of chicken, greens, and mandarin oranges, a helper giving out samples in small cups that were greedily consumed.
“Do you like fast food?” the cook asked as she stirred more food in the pan. When a large show of hands from the young crowd went up, she asked, “Why?” and after some students replied, “It’s good,” or “My parents take me,” the cook asked, “How many of you saw the movie Supersize Me? If you saw the movie, why are you still eating fast food?”
Friday’s focus was childhood obesity, which Smiley said was “not a sexy topic. It’s not a topic that you can get a lot of traction on.”
While the adults sat in on a symposium panel that included several experts in the field of childhood health or fitness, students were down the hall participating in workshops run by students themselves.
In the workshop operated by West Oakland’s Asa Academy, middle school student workshop leaders hammered their peers on the target-of-the-day: fast food.
Yaminah Abdur-Rahim explained that “kids who eat fast food regularly” gain weight, suffer from headaches, and are at increased risk for diseases like Type 2 diabetes. She explained how fast foods are addictive, with such extra elements as high levels of salt and sugar. “You wouldn’t think there is sugar in burgers because they’re not sweet,” she said, “but it’s there.”
Other presenters took surveys on how many students liked fast food staples like MacDonald’s Big Macs or burritos from El Pollo Loco or Taco Bell, and then cited statistics on the calorie counts and ways students could reduce the fat intake by such tactics as “keeping your portions small (don’t supersize it!),” or “getting a healthier side dish; go for the greens; drink water instead of a soda.”
It was not certain how much of this the student listeners took in, but as Kaiser Vice President Bernard Tyson later said, “I came into [the health business at Kaiser] because I wanted to save the world. I’ve been around enough to know that we’re not going to save the world. But if we’ve changed the lifestyle of just one child this weekend, we’ve done a great thing.”
At the Friday press conference, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced a $100,000 grant to Oakland’s San Antonio Neighbors for Active Living organization for its work on child obesity.
On Saturday, the focus shifted to adults, with workshops on such topics as disease management, sexual health, promoting healthy lifestyles, and finding affordable healthcare. Local health organizations, including Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Medical Center, provided free health screenings from dental to blood pressure to prostate exams to HIV testings.
Other pavilions on the convention floor were set up specifically for 20- minute presentations on topics of women’s or senior health. In place of the high school hip hop dancers on the main stage on Friday, Saturday’s dancers featured a chorus line of middle-age women in T-shirts and jeans doing a (slightly) less exaggerated version of some of the same moves.