At Staples and Duke University, Kevin Strong was an elite swimmer. Now — 20 years out of college — Kevin is a pediatrician in Maine.
Neither swimming nor treating babies up north screams “hip hop” and “graffiti art.” But Kevin has combined both those mediums with his fervent conviction that junk food is killing our kids. The result: a grassroots “Dunk the Junk” campaign that he hopes will slash childhood obesity, improve health, and make a major impact on the lifelong eating habits of young and old alike.
Kevin is not a rapper or graffiti artist himself. After med school at UConn and residency at UC San Diego, he joined the solo pediatrics practice of Dr. Charles Hemenway Jr. in Fairfield. They worked together for 7 years — a “great experience,” Kevin says — but as the medical model moved toward seeing more patients for less time, he made the tough decision to move.
Three years ago he and his family found Camden, a Maine town on the ocean that he calls “like dreamland.” He’s working now as a pediatric hospitalist at Lewiston’s Central Maine Medical Center.
That’s where he sees an inordinate number of youngsters who are morbidly obese, and/or have Type 2 diabetes.
About half of Maine’s children are overweight — in some counties, a third are obese — and that’s both a health and economic hazard. Compounding the issue: Many of the parents — and doctors — in these kids’ lives are overweight themselves.
Simply saying “exercise more” doesn’t work, Kevin says. Many youngsters are already active. Nor does adding salad bars to school cafeterias. Kids need to be engaged on their own terms.
Kevin is convinced that reducing sugar — particularly soda consumption — is the key. He’s always loved graffiti art, so he hunted down Portland’s leading street artist Too Rich — (real name: Mike Rich)– and enlisted him in the project.
The program is supported by private donations, healthy-food companies and foundations.
The campaign’s name —Dunk the Junk — draws on the image of “dunking” junk, the way a basketball player dunks a ball.
A Dunk the Junk video shows 10 of the worst junk foods — energy and sports drinks, fruit snacks and fruit juice, gerasy chips, sugary cereals, chocolate milk and the #1 offender, soda — being dunked into oblivion, replaced by healthier alternatives.
Hip hop music plays; the graphics are street art. A web module is being prepared for doctors’ offices; an illustrated children’s book will be given to mothers of 6-month-olds, to entertain their kids while teaching the parents how to avoid introducing processed foods that instill in infants a craving for junk food that could persist throughout their lives.
The project will move from Maine to Philadelphia this summer, with a major event at an outdoor basketball court. Big-name entertainers and athletes will show up; Mike Rich will paint a graffiti mural that becomes the city-wide symbol of dunking junk food.
The Roots — Jimmy Fallon’s house band — have gotten involved too.
And Kevin is taking his show on the road to healthcare workers. On March 21 he’ll present his program during pediatric grand rounds at Bridgeport Hospital. In May he’ll do the same at Norwalk Hospital.
Kevin says he’s using his own entrepreneurial spirit to try to do something good. He is harnessing creative artists to help deliver “a powerful, captivating message” for kids.
There was once a saying in politics: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”
Kevin Strong is betting it’s true for fresh fruit and vegetables, plain peanut butter and whole milk too.