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A Conversation with John Hoffman, Executive Producer of The Weight of the Nation for Kids

WOTNK_fullSometimes we find solutions to our greatest challenges in the most unlikely places, ushered forth by the most unlikely of characters.

Such might be said for the stories and vignettes that compose the new documentary film series, The Weight of the Nation for Kids, where children and youth are the heroes in the battle to end the obesity epidemic in America.

The new series is a follow-up to last year’s groundbreaking multi-part documentary series, The Weight of the Nation™, which explored the facts and myths of the obesity epidemic in the U.S., diving deeply into the complex issues surrounding the crisis and its crippling effects on the nation’s health and health care.*

JohnHoffman_picThe Weight of the Nation for Kids explores these same issues, but now through the eyes and minds and lived experiences of young people. It features the voices and stories of young people taking an active role in their own health and the health of their community while underscoring the importance of changing the environment to enable young people to make healthier decisions. The three-part series premiered earlier this week on HBO and is available free to Internet audiences via The Weight of the Nation for Kids website.

John Hoffman, executive producer of The Weight of the Nation and The Weight of the Nation for Kids, recently sat down to discuss his involvement with these two campaigns and the unique perspectives that the youth films offer to the larger discussion on addressing obesity in America. Mr. Hoffman is also the co-founder of The Public Good Projects, a non-profit production company developing innovative media aimed at educating Americans about public health issues.

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TS: Can you tell us a little bit about how The Weight of the Nation for Kids series fits into the larger Weight of the Nation campaign?

JH: The Weight of the Nation for Kids films have been part of the overall vision for The Weight of the Nation campaign from the very beginning. Young people are a critical audience to connect with and reach out to—they are engaged in this struggle to make healthy choices for themselves and their communities just as much as adults. Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO documentary films, felt early on that it was important that we look to young people who are finding solutions to the obesity epidemic and lift up those stories as part of the overall campaign. Young people often see answers to this epidemic that may be otherwise eluding adults.

TS: You took a slightly different approach to the making of each film, particularly the third film in the series. What were you aiming to convey through the style and approach that you used with each film?

JH: We made every effort to show children in a completely honest and respectful way and let them be a voice in this conversation around obesity prevention. We sought to capture children at work and play doing what they do and saying what they naturally say. With the first two films in the series—Kabreeya’s Salad Days and The Great Cafeteria Takeover, the stories coming out of those situations lent themselves to traditional cinema techniques that followed the characters over time. The third film—QuizEd!—provided an opportunity to change up the creative approach. With QuizEd!, we wanted to dialogue with kids and show them that there’s so much joy in being at the skate park, or the community pool, or the basketball court. There’s so much reward from playing and so many young people who recognize the joys and benefits of play.

TS: Much has come forth from the Institute of Medicine regarding the importance of schools in addressing the obesity epidemic. How do you see The Weight of the Nation for Kids being integrated into the work being done around school wellness?

JH: I would hope that for every kid watching these shows, that they would find the inspiration to say to the Powers That Be, “Why wouldn’t you feed us food that makes us grow to be as healthy as possible? And if you know that we need to move, in school and after school, for our bodies and minds to grow, why wouldn’t you build that into our day?” I would hope that these films would really spark these kinds of conversations in schools. The Weight of the Nation for Kids provides the opportunity for every kid watching to be inspired by other kids like them who are demanding healthier options in their life and not accepting the status quo.

Two of our partners in this campaign—Kaiser Permanente and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation—have a deep understanding of how to reach young people. With their support, we’ve been able to have screening kits prepared in English and Spanish and to get those kits out there to the places where kids and youth gather. Youth leaders and wellness champions can use these materials to reach kids in a very unique way to help kids see that they can help lead the movement to fight obesity.

TS: From your work on The Weight of the Nation films, what did you learn about the childhood obesity epidemic that was most surprising?

JH: What I found most surprising in my work with these films is the sheer impact of an economy built on subsidies that support a very small number of crops in this country—corn, soy, wheat. Until we really confront the agricultural economy and how it’s structured, until we really look at the economic incentives for farmers to plant those few crops, we’re really not going to be able to have a level playing field when it comes to our food options. We need the development of a much broader and more sophisticated distribution of perishable foods in this country and a farm bill that provides incentives to farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables. There are many forces shaping our decisions about health, forces that are often outside of our awareness, and we need to develop a marketplace that makes fresh foods economically enticing and viable.

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*Both The Weight of the Nation and The Weight of the Nation for Kids are part of a larger public health campaign launched in May 2012 that was developed in partnership between HBO Documentary Films, the Institute of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and Kaiser Permanente.

Catherine Brozena

Catherine is a senior communications professional helping social change organizations tell their story in powerful ways. She has expertise in public health, environmental stewardship, philanthropy and education. Follow her on Twitter @CatBrozena

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