December 1, 2014 – Trading in his candy canes for fresh fruits and vegetables, a former mall Santa is bringing the gift of health to children at farmers’ markets up and down the West Coast. “Sustainable Santa” visited the Old Monterey Farmers’ Market earlier this year to campaign against childhood obesity and told a Christmas story that began with his own health.
“He had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . .” until his wife told him that it wasn’t quaint, it wasn’t cute, it wasn’t okay. Hers was a cautionary tale that he was living a lifestyle that couldn’t sustain him.
The words hit home. Santa took a look at his eating habits, paying particular attention to hidden sugars. He started exercising and opted for a paleo-style diet, giving up wheat, corn, potatoes and processed sugars. He focused on whole foods, organically and sustainably grown without GMOs, and lightened his load by 80 pounds. He also modified his name from Santa to Sustainable Santa.™
After serving three years as a mall Santa during the holidays, the retired city manager and professor began to think of the culture of Christmas around candy and other sugary indulgences. And he turned his attention to the “60-pound 4-year-olds” he was lifting onto his lap and then sending off with a candy cane, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.
“That diabetic, obese, jelly-bellied old guy who smokes and gives candy to kids is 190 years out of date. Sadly I realized I was contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity in America,” says Sustainable Santa, who prefers not to use any other names.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control reports that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. The percentage of children aged 6 to 11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012.
Surely there’s no finer champion of children than Santa Claus. So he launched a campaign which, like the promise of Christmas, might motivate children to live a healthy lifestyle all year long. “Statistics tell us,” he says, “that for the first time in American history, the current newest generation will have shorter lives than their parents because they don’t eat healthy foods and pursue sustainable lifestyles. Few are in as good a position as Santa to effectively encourage children to eat healthier diets. I urge fellow Santas to nurture their nature and help children get on track.”
For starters, Sustainable Santa would like to get other Santas out of the malls of America and into the healthy environment of local farmers’ markets. After sitting with Santa and letting their parents snap the “Christmas card picture” with their iPhone, the child can hop off his lap with, not a candy cane, but a repurposed poker chip that reads, “Get some Santa’s Garden Bites.”
This chip can be exchanged at participating produce stands for a button mushroom, a bit of broccoli, a colorful carrot or other organic vegetables.
Sustainable Santa who, with Mrs. Claus, nurtures four children and eight grandchildren plus “the rest of the children in the world,” has established three “Food Rules to Live by,” which he believes will instill a healthy lifestyle in children and maybe even their parents.
Rule #1: If you are hungry, eat an apple.
“If you are not willing to eat an apple,” he says, “you probably are not truly hungry. “
Rule #2: Treat Treats as Treats.
“There is nothing wrong,” says Santa, “with special occasion foods. A cookie on Christmas Eve or a piece of cake on your birthday surely warrants a special-occasion food treat. But don’t make that cookie, cake, candy, donut or cinnamon bun daily fare.”
Rule #3: Follow the “S” Rule.
“No sodas, snacks, seconds, sugars, salt or sweets,” he says, “except on days that begin with the letter ‘S.’ Junk food can be addicting. A week-long break from it will help you break that addiction because it probably won’t taste as good the next time you try it.” Salads, sandwiches and soup are exempt from the “S” Rule.
“It’s all about focus and locus,” he says. “Meet kids at the farmers market and give them the rules and the tools to be healthy.” A subsequent survey regarding Sustainable Santa’s suggestions, posed to local children and young adults, yielded a mixture of messages:
- “Santa has a good point.”
- “Santa sucks!’
- “So Santa thinks I’m fat?”
- “Santa, this deer don’t fly.”
- “I’m down with the idea all year, and I’d be happy to eat a mushroom at the farmers market, but I want my candy cane at Christmas!”
Sustainable Santa and Mrs. Claus also created “Santa’s Make a Christmas Gift Idea Book,” a children’s craft handbook with photos, diagrams and step-by-step instructions to make corn-husk angels, gourd Santas and elves, pine cone elves, spoon Santas and oyster or scallop shell Santas. The book is available exclusively at participating farmers markets.
“Too many kids,” he says, “eat out of habit, not hunger. Children who are creatively engaged stop eating out of boredom.”
Upon seeing Sustainable Santa at the farmers’ market, Deena Jackson, on holiday from Bend, Oregon, handed him a hastily scrawled Christmas list. “We never get to see Santa in the summertime; what a treat. There’s no such thing as getting your list in too early!” She wasn’t too sure about trading candy for cucumbers but was open to a balance of both.
Many believe the Santa story begins with a slender Santa, beefed up by Mrs. Claus’ cooking the night before Rudolf leads him up into the sky, to sustain him during a long winter’s night of gift giving. He replenishes along the way with milk and cookies set by the hearth with care. Depleted by the day after Christmas, Santa is slim again.
Some say the tradition of leaving cookies and milk for Santa began during the Great Depression, as an opportunity for parents to teach children to show gratitude and to share, even in their own times of need. Others report it was to dedicate a serving to Santa, so he would stop sampling the decorations on the tree. Either way, it may be hard to break Santa of this sweet habit.
Yet Sustainable Santa is determined to try. For the past few months, he has been traveling the western states, providing training to certified Santas that they may pass on the message of healthy eating to the children they will meet at the mall or, hopefully, the farmers markets this season.
“I am betting on most Santas to do the right thing,” he says. “I know they truly care about kids and want to see them lead healthy lives.”
A fifth-generation Northern Californian, Lisa Crawford Watson has enjoyed a diverse career in business, education and writing. She lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where her grandmother once lived and wrote. An adjunct writing instructor for CSU Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College, Lisa is also a free-lance writer, who specializes in the genres of art & architecture, health & lifestyle, food & wine. She has published various books and thousands of feature articles and columns in local and national newspapers and magazines.