Interview with Richard Eckfield, Sustainable Santa© with Wolfram Alderson, CEO of the Hypoglycemia Support Foundation
Today, I’m interviewing Richard Eckfield, also known as Sustainable Santa.
Richard, please share a little about your “life before Santa.”
I spent more than 30 years in City Management and teaching my profession which is Public Administration at the college level. In 1967, I was appointed to a Deputy to the Assistant Secretary for Public Housing and Urban Renewal post at HUD by President Johnson where we significantly modernized and streamlined both Public Housing and Urban Renewal processes which helped turn around what was becoming the decline of our major cities. Taken together with local government innovations I have been privileged to be associated with, our cities are far stronger and more enjoyable than they have been in decades.
Where did the idea of Sustainable Santa come from? What led you down the slippery, snow laden, slope to Santa Land?
I am Swedish by decent with both parents born there. Everyone in my gene pool transitioned from blond to white haired at about 35 years of age. Back then I had a goatee and white hair and my students all constantly told me “you should be a Santa.” In our retirement years, we always had our granddaughters with us during Christmas Vacation as their parents all worked.
By 2012, however, they had grown up to the point where they would no longer be “camping out” with us for those weeks before Christmas. I applied to be a Mall Santa and was instantly hired. In that job, I learned first-hand the meaning of the words we all have said: “Childhood Obesity Crisis” as I lifted 60 pound 4 and 5 year-olds into my lap for that picture with Santa. Compounding that experience my employer had me passing our Candy Canes.
Clearly there was a disconnect between what Santa was promoting and the reality of what was needed to help kids learn to enjoy what we now call eating “Real Food” and enjoying being healthy, happy and fit for life. But back in 2012 the steps needed for Santa to take to help make that happen were blurred by the Fast and Processed Food promotions. America’s imagination of what Santa could or should do to promote kids eating and being healthy were unclear
Where does the “modern” idea of Santa come from (the big guy in a red and white suit, holding a bottle of Coke) – how is it different from the historical Santa?
The original Santa was Saint Nicholas – Bishop of the town of Myra which is in what we now call the country of Turkey. He lived to be 73 years of age, dying in 343AD – long before “modern medicine”. He lived that long because he ate what we now call a “Mediterranean Diet” of fish, goat, lots of veggies, olive oil, and he loved Greco-Roman wrestling. In short, he was a healthy fellow and he cared deeply about the citizens of his town, saving them from famine twice, and working other “miracles.” That is in addition to establishing the idea of “gift giving” Christmas eve which were originally small sacks of gold. Saint Nicholas is still a revered Saint in the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church. And the image of the healthy Santa still prevails in most of Eastern and Western Europe.
In Colonial America, Father Christmas was also a healthy guy, often with a salt and pepper beard. It was not until the 1920s when Clement Moore memorialized the practice of the wealthy Americans of showing their wealth by being what they called “corpulent” in his 1924 poem “The Night Before Christmas” as the “jelly bellied” guy who smoked a pipe and blew smoke rings the shape of a wreath around his head, that the Fat Santa took center stage in our American culture. Back then, in the 1820s, the rest of the Americans, including the kids, were working hard on the farms and in the factories and were not “corpulent.”
That Santa image would have faded away. However, in 1931, at the beginning of the great depression, the Coca-Cola company launched the advertising campaign designed to boost their winter sales of their beverage, and voilà, we had the début of the Obese Santa in their newly invented Coke Colored outfit of the Red suit with the White Cuffs (Coke’s colors) and it worked. Coke is justifiably proud of the fact that they convinced America that Santa is supposed to be fat, and wears a Coke can colored outfit. That image continues to this day irrespective of the fact that there is nothing “Jolly” about being Obese nor is using that image to target kids to encourage them to drink sugary drinks.
How is Sustainable Santa different from other Santas? Do I still get a candy cane after I tell you what I want for Christmas?
It has only been 86 years since the debut of that first Coke Ad campaign featuring the Obese Santa promoting a sugar loaded drink. For the record, the Coca-Cola Company had used a different Santa image in previous years, but it was the 1931 guy who has since become the “modern” model. 86 years is just a flicker of a moment in the lifetime of a country.
This is now the 21st century and the need to address the ill-health throughout American (and due to our unhealthy eating practices of consuming Fast and Processed “foods” is spreading world-wide) the need to “rethink” our eating culture is obvious.
The Santa Icon still has influence with children and Santas and now Lady Santas (modeled after the Women Christmas Icons of Europe) are in a position to help concerned parents help their children learn the joy of Eating Real Food and living a Sustainable Lifestyle.
But making this transition will take time and persistent effort. Plus, the use of the older Santa image continues. Watch the current TV ads. They still have him still being a “cookie connoisseur” and refer to him as “big guy.” Be clear, this is NOT about being skinny. It is about being healthy, and promoting “healthful” practices.
That gets to the issue of the “reward” systems we employ. And NO, you do not get a candy cane for telling Santa what you want. In fact, the 21st Century Santa helps parents help their children understand the connection between our now excessive sugar consumption and their lack of enjoyment of a full and active life due to ill-health, even how this affects their academic performance in school. Eating healthy is far more fun and the 21st Century Santa helps parents and kids understand that with a series of games and activities we carry out, often in the Farmers’ Markets where “Real Food” is available.
Sugar and processed foods seem to be hallmarks of virtually all American holidays, including Christmas, and a fundamental way in which we “reward” ourselves and our children… birthdays, celebrations at work, everyday “treats” and “deserts” have become the norm. How do you carry your message beyond Christmas to the year round of challenge of maintaining a healthier diet?
First, we recognize that the Sugar and Snack industry has “captured” many American Holidays. We just completed a very successful effort in our local Farmers’ Markets where we promoted the sale of “Natures Candy” as the trick-or-treat handouts for Halloween. The Farmers’ were organized to make available items such as dehydrated oranges, apples and persimmons and honey-sticks as alternatives to the sugar loaded confections typically given out at Halloween. There can be healthy alternatives to Jelly Beans for Easter too, in addition to the healthy alternatives promoted at Christmas time.
Santa has three “food rules” designed to stop the intake of sugar laden and other unhealthy items which we review with the kids and give to parents to post on the refrigerator.
The first two were adapted from the pioneering work of Michael Pollan.
Rule #1 addresses the sad fact that kids now eat just to have something to do. It has nothing to do with hunger. Thus Rule 1 is to tell the child: “If you are hungry, eat an Apple.” Then Santa says: “What? You say you don’t want an Apple? – well, if you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, then perhaps you are not really hungry… and the thought will pass.”
The goal here is not to promote apple-eating. It is to get them to think before they stuff something in their mouth just because it is there – and Junk Food, which is now marketed as “Snack” food is available virtually everywhere, at every checkout counter in America. Rule #1 it to make them think before they “snack.”
Rule #2 is simple: Treat Treats as Treats. Santa tell them there is absolutely nothing wrong with “special occasion foods.” Traditional Holiday cookies and a lovely cake on their birthday is perfectly OK. And the joy and happiness of making and baking them at holiday times should be cherished moments. But don’t make those “special occasion” treats a daily fare. Treat cookies, and cinnamon buns, even pizza as what they are = treats to be enjoyed only on special occasions.
Rule #3 has its roots in Europe where in most cultures Children get a “treat” on Saturday if they have done well in school and have done their chores all week. In Sweden – in the culture I was raised in – it is called Lördagsgodis which literally translates to “Saturday Candy.” However, it never was “candy” but rather some chocolate, or nuts, or a fresh orange to peel and eat. Thus Rule # 3 goes: No Sodas, No Snacks, No Second Helpings, No added Sugar or Salt and No Sweets, except possibly on days that start with the letter “S” = Saturday or Sunday.
All three rules are collectively intended to get the children to think about moving away from the Fast, Junk and Processed Foods. They are the “stop eating the bad stuff” rules.
In the farmers’ markets, we have two other activities which introduce them to the “good” Real Food. One is called: Try a Santa’s Garden Bite Here program where the farmers sample tastes of Real Food which they likely are not familiar with – introducing them to the cornucopia of wonderful new food flavors.
The second is the “Eat the Rainbow” game which teaches them the different nutritional values within the five (5) different color groups into which all fruits and veggies fall, and teaches them how to prepare and eat the veggies of their favorite colors. We encourage making a game of it: perhaps all Reds and Greens this week Yellow and Purple next week, with the kids participating in the preparation. Over time they learn to “Eat the Rainbow” of colors which yields a healthy life.
What is your mission, how are you trying to change Santa culture in the U.S.?
We are not trying to change “Santa culture” we are trying to change “America’s Eating Culture” and just like the Sugar and Sugary Drink industry used the Santa Icon to sell their products, we want to use the Santa Icon to “sell” the joy of “Eating Real Food and enjoying a Sustainable Lifestyle.”
Step 1 in that process is to influence the “message” to get Santas, irrespective of their current body mass index, to STOP promoting products which create ill-health. There is no “fat shaming” involved in passing out the Food Rule Cards and promoting trying Santa’s Garden Bites. These appeal to kids of all sizes and stimulate their natural inquisitiveness.
To the degree that the Santas themselves want to take this advice and improve their “healthfulness” image, that is fine but not essential. Time and national acceptance of the idea of a “Healthy looking” Santa will eventually dictate the alternation to the 1931 Coke creation.
However, companies and Santas who view being Santa as a business should avoid wearing a pillow to bring them into compliance with the now out-of-date obese Santa image. Professional Santas should also avoid the temptation of wearing gloves which can transmit germs and viruses between children visiting their lap. Our Santas go bare handed and use a hand sanitizer between each child when working with kids in the Farmers’ markets
What advice do you give to children while in your Santa role?
RICHARD In addition to “eating healthy” which I believe we have covered, we also urge them to be creative. One activity is to encourage them to “make that Holiday gift” for grandma or family and friends, not just buy it. We provide a Make a Christmas Gift Idea book which shows them how to make great gifts from items they can grow or gather from the Garden, the Forest, the Sea Shore or the Kitchen. That is all part of the Sustainable Lifestyle part of our mission.
Are you part of a larger movement? If yes, please describe who your collaborators are.
Organic Farmers, Sustainable Agriculture advocates, the host of groups concerned with the explosive growth of children’s ill-health with illnesses now showing up in elementary school at levels never seen there just a few decades ago. That is part of the reason why we started our efforts in Farmers’ Markets – not because those attending were already “health conscious”- which many are, but because in any movement to “change culture” you have to organize your base of support from which you can expand the recognition of the need for an eating culture change. The ability to launch such an effort is high among those participating in and attending farmers’ markets.
Are you familiar with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines? Why do you think dietary advice is so confusing and ineffective in the U.S.?
If you look at the current food label you will find that the DV – the daily recommended value for Sugar is not even listed. That is partly due to the “loophole” the sugar industry could take advantage of as there is no daily “recommended” about of Sugar. You do not need to eat ANY added sugar whatsoever. However, there are daily amounts over which you should not exceed. But these are not shown, and the proposed change in the Food Label showing whether the product contributes to more than 10% added Sugar to the daily calorie maximum have been “sidelined” by the new Administration and my not be implemented at all. That is very sad.
You have participated in a number of events with Dr. Robert Lustig – what do you find appealing about his message?
Our efforts owe a great deal to the guidance provided by Dr. Lusting and the research team he assembled at his Institute for Responsible Nutrition. We exhibit in our Santa Houses at the Farmers’ Markets a poster showing the finding of his studies in Oakland where in 10 days, by eliminating added sugar from the basically deplorable diet of children in what we call an “Urban food desert” there, they dramatically improved the children’s health as measured by improved glucose tolerance blood pressure, improved liver function, improved insulin sensitivity and decreased “bad” cholesterol.
Other “realizations” from Dr. Lustig which we share with parents is the fact that while we call our group the Real Santas to end Childhood Obesity – the fact is that the illnesses the Standard American Diet (SAD) creates are NOT limited to the overweight or obese kids. It damages all children on the inside, whether they show it or not on the outside.
Finally, that obesity is a symptom of illness, not a cause, has been very powerful realization we have learned from Dr. Lustig. When in serious conversions with patients, our Santas share the realization that: You don’t get sick because you’re FAT, you get FAT because you’re sick. The SAD diet is killing us all one spoonful at a time and with a team effort between Santa and parents we can help the children avoid that outcome.
As you know, I am CEO of the Hypoglycemia Support Foundation. We want people to pay attention to early signs of metabolic disorder, such as irregular blood sugar. Ironically, low blood sugar is often treated with consuming hefty amounts of sugar or starch, which is almost always the cause of functional low blood sugar or reactive low blood sugar. Overconsumption of added sugar and processed carbohydrates is at the center of the metabolical disease storm. These habits and conditions are often set into place early in childhood, enabled by parents who don’t know any better…and we have built a whole food culture that supports disease and disorder. After the year 2000, one in four children will have type 2 diabetes.
How do you address these issues in your educational work associated with Sustainable Santa?
Through the Food Rules, Garden Bites, and Eat the Rainbow programs previously discussed. We also make “SPARK” (Santas Promote American’s Right to Know) educational presentations where we show parents both how to read the food labels and point out what is missing on them.
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT SUSTAINABLE SANTA
Sustainable Santa Foundation
PO box 1225
Carlsbad, CA 92011