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Dishing Out Dinner as the Anti-Drug

Two first ladies meet with Silver Lake students to kick off a program to encourage families to sit down to meals together.

September 26, 2006|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

The most effective measure against cigarette smoking, drug abuse and alcohol usage by teens is not rehab or counseling, jail time or other types of punishments, restrictions and interventions.

Instead, research by a substance abuse center at Columbia University shows that one of the most effective ways to keep children off alcohol and drugs is for parents to simply to sit down with them at dinnertime.

On Monday morning, Maria Shriver, wife of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Corina Villaraigosa, wife of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, brought this message to Thomas Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake. Together, they encouraged children to take the lead in demanding that their families dine together.

"You can make a huge difference in your own families and in your own communities," Shriver said. "Tell your parents and grandparents you want to eat together."

The first ladies were at the school as part of national "Family Day -- A Day to Eat Dinner With Your Children" campaign. Although Monday was declared Family Day, the campaign to encourage families to eat together will continue all year. Shriver told the children that like other families, the Schwarzeneggers and Villaraigosas have to juggle hectic schedules in order to sit down to a meal together, but they do it when they can.

"All the research shows the more you can eat as a family, the better you do in school," Shriver told a group of assembled students. "We're both moms, and we're both trying to spend as much time as possible with our kids and raise them to be compassionate and kind."

Villaraigosa added, in English and Spanish, that children in single-parent families, foster homes, two-parent families or families of all compositions would benefit from the time together.

The annual teen survey, conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, has consistently revealed a strong correlation between the frequency of family dinners and teen substance abuse risk. This year, 58% of teens reported having dinner with their family at least five times a week -- the same as in the last few years and an increase since 1996, the first year the survey was done.

The obstacles to family dining are clear. One out of four teens say both their parents work late. Twenty-two percent say their family is too busy, and 21% say conflicting schedules are to blame. Also, 18% said that either the family does not choose to eat together or is watching television at mealtime.

Los Angeles school board member David Tokofsky, who accompanied Shriver and Villaraigosa, said many students faced additional challenges in terms of health, fitness and family time.

"It's the crowded streets and lack of rapid transit and bombardment of fast food around schools," Tokofsky said.

King Middle School itself provides an example. The MTA recently canceled the bus that stopped in front of the school, so now students walk up the hill to the nearest stop, in front of a McDonald's.

"There are not enough MTA buses to move kids from school to home fast enough," he said.

Throughout the morning, Shriver and Villaraigosa were ushered from one setting to another where children wearing Vons T-shirts listened to them patiently or politely answered their questions. Safeway, the parent company of Vons, is one of the sponsors of the Family Day campaign and, along with the shirts, donated $10,000 to the school.

The Safeway Foundation also held events in Austin, Texas; Chicago, Denver, Oakland, Phoenix and other cities. At each event, the foundation made charitable contributions totaling $10,000 to local organizations that support drug prevention and education programs.

The company's yearlong campaign will include newspaper and radio advertisements, and website and employee education, Safeway Chief Executive Steve Burd said.

He said that next year, he would ask religious groups to spread the message as well.

Burd said he committed Safeway to joining the campaign after hearing Joseph Califano, president of the addiction center at Columbia, speak to a closed-door session of chief executives.

He was stunned, he said, by how the simple act of family members eating together could have such profound social implications. Although parents are busy and many work late hours, eating together must become a priority, he said.

"I grew up in the 1950s and '60s; both of my parents worked, but we had dinner together," he said.

The key, Burd said, was to find a way to have family time regardless of whether it occurred at the dinner table.

"Keep in mind there are three meals in a day; maybe for some people it might be easier to have breakfast together," he said. "The idea is communication."

Several students said they regularly have dinner with their families but enjoyed meeting the first ladies anyway.

"I think it's really good and will help a lot more kids stay out of gangs and out of trouble so they don't end up dead in the streets," said Gloria Lepe, 12.

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lisa.richardson@latimes.com

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