Above and Beyond: Nutrition

Above and Beyond: Nutrition

By Megy Karydes

Obesity affects approximately 17 percent of children aged 2 to 19 years, and the figure has nearly tripled since 1980. There are many possible reasons why this figure continues to grow including societal changes that promote inactivity and food consumption. One study published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that obesity can be spread from person to person. Two Chicago-based nonprofit organizations are working to change the dynamics by reaching out to kids and creating a long-lasting impact.


Pilot Light brings the lunchroom into the classroom by way of chefs who are as passionate about sharing how food plays a part of their lives as they are preparing it for their restaurants.

Most of the kids in the classroom won’t recognize the names of the celebrated Chicago chefs who piloted the program in a Chicago public school on the Northwest Side, and that’s of little matter to them. Chefs Paul Kahan (avec), Matthias Merges (Yusho), Jason Hammel (Lula) and Ryan Poli (formerly of Tavernita) realized that they had the connections and ability to enact real change in school curricula, and despite their demanding schedules, felt that it was their responsibility to make it happen, says Merges.

The team of chefs recruited others to join them, and with the aid of educational consultants, they are creating a curriculum library to bring lesson plans that can be used by educators nationwide.

“In one lesson plan, we show how to read the label on a package and how to count calories,” notes Merges. They reviewed the label on a brand-name potato-chip bag and asked the students what they thought about the packaging. A fifth-grade class was studying civil rights, and when the chef asked whether access to healthy food is a civil right, they all agreed that it was.

“That was monumental,” says Merges. “Kids really care about food,” he adds.

He wants others to care, too, because he’s convinced that if kids have better access to information about what they are eating, they’ll make healthier decisions.

Merges has no time for the bickering in Congress, so he and his friends have taken it upon themselves to enact change and invites others to join them. “Education has been neglected for too long, and it needs to be everyone’s priority.”


“There is a significant correlation between youth obesity and depression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders and violence,” says Shannon Downey, executive director of Downsize For Life, an organization that empowers and supports youths aged 13 to 18 who are currently at an unhealthy weight in transforming their lives through fitness, nutrition and education.

Downey admits that there are plenty of programs out there working on childhood-obesity prevention but few that are focused on obesity transformation. “Prevention is an invaluable piece of the puzzle, but what about our youths who are already there?” she asks.

Downsize For Life is the nonprofit arm of Downsize Fitness, the world’s first overweight-only gym founded by Francis Wisniewski.

The program launched in mid-November 2013 in Chicago and Naperville, with a free seven-month program for 10 kids per location. Another 10 are participating through a virtual program, which the organization is beta testing.

“Downsize For Life is here to challenge the shame-induced silence around obesity and youth,” notes Downey. “We exist to empower transformation through education, resources and a body-positive community. Seventy-five percent of our trainers and staff have weight loss and health-transformation stories themselves; they have been there, and they know what it takes and what it means.”

According to Downey, the model is based on the whole person in a judgmentally free environment. “We know [that] significant weight loss takes time and [that it is] a true lifestyle change, so we focus on functional and fun fitness, nutritional education, lifestyle training and community building. That ranges from one-on-one nutritional coaching with a certified nutritionist to field trips to the local grocery store to learn how to shop. We [also address possible reasons behind some obesity]; everything from bullying and self-esteem to meditation and mind/body connection.”