LOS ANGELES – A short walk from the fast-food drive-throughs, taco joints and doughnut shops lining palm-tree-dotted main drag, in Hawaiian Gardens, California, a classroom of kindergartners begins a well-rehearsed routine.
Jutting their thumbs down and contorting their faces in theatrical frowns, the kids chant, “Soda is bad!”
“Doritos?” teacher Adriana Rosas calls out.
“No!” the kids yell, each making an “X” with their small arms.
Standing quietly to the side with his arms crossed, a man smiles.
Alexander Khananashvili wrote these sing-alongs, which are heard in four elementary schools serving this predominantly Latino suburb.
The tiniest city in Los Angeles County, Hawaiian Gardens would be easy to miss. The town takes up less than a square mile. Nearly a quarter of its population lives below the poverty level.
But to Khananashvili, the city’s size offers an unusual opportunity. He sees a condensed and manageable space to test emerging theories that suggest keeping off extra pounds requires upending everyday food culture – at schools, in grocery stores and homes, at restaurants.
“The problem with obesity can be solved,” says Khananashvili. “It’ll take years, but it can be solved.”
It has been an unlikely journey for a physician who left Russia for an immigrant’s life in America 15 years ago and found success teaching the children of other immigrants how to improve their lives.
It all began with a chance meeting at a vending machine.
When Khananashvili immigrated to Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters, he didn’t have money to return to school here and get a doctor’s license. He didn’t know English. He had to start over.
Now 57, Khananashvili describes how – like many arrivals from overseas – he was immediately struck by the large number of obese people in the United States.
Sensing an opportunity, Khananashvili launched a vending machine business that dispensed dried fruit and nuts, alongside chips and candy.
One day, while stocking a machine in Hawaiian Gardens City Hall, Khananashvili met then-Mayor Mike Gomez.
Gomez was seeking solutions to Hawaiian Gardens’ obesity problem. In a city of 14,000 residents, 1 in 3 kids was severely overweight, a rate 43 percent higher than the county average.
“Unfortunately,” Gomez says, “I didn’t know how to bring it to the fore.”
“The problem is nobody cares about the problem,” he says.
He’s upset that there’s no governmental agency dedicated to fighting obesity on all fronts. He calls stand-alone attempts, like banning sodas from schools, “fairy tales.”
“It’s a huge problem that costs billions of dollars, and we don’t do anything about it,” he says.
As he and Gomez spoke, Khananashvili gradually convinced the mayor that getting kids in better shape required community-wide change and parent education. The two became friends, and with Gomez’s help, Khananashvili began free lectures at City Hall on healthful eating. Eventually, he was hired by the local Tri-City Regional Medical Center to run its community health programs.
Last year, Khananashvili started Activate Hawaiian Gardens – a city and school district collaboration funded by the hospital - to teach nutrition classes to kindergartners’ parents.
Since then, his program has launched healthful cooking demonstrations on the city’s cable TV channel (with guides to finding the ingredients at the local Wal-Mart), gotten children singing the praises of whole-grain bread, changed the school lunch program and prompted the local Subway shop to incorporate his suggestions on its sandwich menu.
“To end the epidemic, you must work on society,” Khananashvili says. “The environment needs to change everywhere.”
Parents say the classes helped them make changes to improve their diets, such as switching to low-fat milk and replacing red meat with fish. Many pledged to stop giving their kids soda, limit screen time, and scrutinize labels as they select items at the market.
He says he’s seen improvement. Roughly 45 percent of 300 kindergartners in four participating elementary schools were obese or overweight before the program began, according to a report written by Gomez and Khananashvili. A year later, Khananashvili says, parents who took the class saw an almost 4 percent reduction in their children’s body mass index – a measure based on weight and height.