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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
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Madison prominent in The Weight of the Nation, an HBO documentary on childhood obesity
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The panel (L-R): Andy Choi (moderator, WISC-TV), Martha Pings (founding member of Madison Families for Better Nutrition), Erik Kass (Assistant Superintendent - Business Services for the MMSD), Randy Clark (manager of the UW Hospital Pediatric Fitness Clinic), and Steve Youngbauer (Head of Food Services for the MMSD)
Credit:Nayantara Mukherji

At first glance, Hamilton Middle School student Kaelan Guetschow is an average teenager. He loves playing video games with his friends and riding his bike through the arboretum. He hates school lunches.

But unlike many of his peers, 14-year-old Kaelan has already had his first taste of fame.

Kaelan and his family feature prominently in an upcoming four-part HBO documentary on obesity, titled The Weight of the Nation. Part three of the documentary deals with childhood obesity, which executive producer John Hoffman says is a "nationwide problem that needs to be addressed in every community."

This segment, which was shot in part in Madison, was shown at a private screening Thursday night to about 200 people at Sundance Cinemas.

"There are two to three times as many overweight kids now as there were 20 years ago. So there's a significant trend upwards," says Randy Clark, manager of the UW Hospital Pediatric Fitness Clinic, who is featured in the film.

Clark works with Kaelan at the UW clinic. For Kaelen, the problem was not so much his weight. It was his low fitness level.

"His default mode was not getting up and moving," says Kaelan's father, Bill Guetschow. "The fitness clinic helped him understand it takes effort to get up and move."

It certainly seems to have helped. Kaelan now uses terms like "body mass index" and "muscle mass" without blinking an eye, and his physical fitness has improved on both these fronts.

The documentary premieres on HBO on May 14 and 15, and features a number of other Madisonians including Erik Kass, assistant superintendent for business services for the school district and Martha Pings, a founding member of Madison Families for Better Nutrition.

The film addresses multiple causes of childhood obesity, including lack of play spaces, aggressive advertising of junk food to children and unhealthy school meal options. To investigate this third factor, the crew was given access to Madison schools' cafeterias and kitchens.

It is not a pretty picture: there are shots of mass-produced chicken nuggets and hot dogs, gloppy oatmeal and pizza and French Fries dripping with grease. Audience members groaned audibly at the sight and one whispered, "It makes me sick just looking at it!"

"The pizza is so greasy you need 10 napkins to soak it up," Kaelan says, explaining why he never eats school lunch.

In the film, Kass says the school lunch production system is designed to be efficient, not necessarily healthy.

"The system that we currently have is called a pre-packed system. It's very efficient. It's built on the industrial revolution model where people stand in a line and they pack you three chicken nuggets, then they pack a handful of fries, and in a different line they pack these orange slices and vegetables," Kass says.

At a panel discussion after the showing, Kass explained the district's decision to open its cafeterias to HBO.

"I think we as a school district owe it to our kids to be open about what issues we are facing in public education," Kass said. "This documentary helped shine a light on one of the issues we're dealing with, which is feeding our kids."

Steve Youngbauer, Head of Food Services for the school district, agreed that the documentary could help open a community-wide conversation about the state of school lunches.

"We alone can't solve this problem. That's what a lot of the documentary said to me," Youngbauer said at the panel discussion. "We need partnerships, we need community groups, and we need parents to be interested and to help us solve this problem."

Kaelan, who is thrilled at how the documentary turned out, hopes his participation in it will help inspire other kids to get healthy.

"The message I hope this sends to other kids is that you can work past it," Kaelan says. "You just have to work hard and not give up."

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