November/December 2017 California Bountiful magazine
Interview by Jolaine Collins
Photos by Zeena Gregg
Santas Richard Eckland and Bill Swank collaborate with farmers at the Vista Farmers Market in San Diego County to encourage healthy eating and offer produce samples. Photo: © 2017 Zeena Gregg
If you’ve ever wondered what Santa and his helpers do when they’re not busy at the North Pole, the answer may be as close as San Diego County’s farmers markets. There, you’ll find red-suited characters like Richard Eckland (also known as Sustainable Santa) and Bill Swank (aka Baseball Santa) handing kids carrots instead of candy canes, and cards promoting healthy eating. Eckland leads this jolly group called Real Santas United to End Childhood Obesity.
What’s the reach of Real Santas United? Richard: It started with just my wife and me in 2013, and last year we had 16 Santas in 20 markets in San Diego County, Riverside and Northern California. We hope to be in as many as 60 markets by the end of this year. We’ve handed out more than 5,000 cards promoting healthy eating.
What’s your goal? Richard: Real Santas United are promoters of wellness. Our mission is to change the image and message of Santa to one who promotes healthy eating and living a sustainable lifestyle. We want to help make kids healthy, happy and fit for life. Our goals are to inspire a cultural change that encourages kids to eat real food, to help parents understand what is healthy and to address the diet-driven health problems our kids face.
How do you involve fruits and veggies in your outreach? Bill: I hand out carrots at farmers markets and have incorporated them when I speak in the full red suit at service clubs and other Santa appearances in San Diego. Richard: We send kids on a treasure hunt at the farmers market, looking for “Santa’s garden bites”—tastes of real food supplied by the farmers. It introduces the kids and their parents to the joy of eating things such as slices of raw bell pepper, dehydrated star fruit, persimmons, blood oranges and even probiotic fermented cabbage. We show kids how to “eat the rainbow” and give them seed packets so they can plant a garden with a rainbow of colored vegetables. We even have songs.
Sing me a line from one of your songs. Richard: “You’ll find healthy eating isn’t that hard. Your brain will grow stronger when you eat Swiss chard.”
Are kids surprised to get carrots instead of candy canes? Bill: When I give a carrot to a kid, I’m impressed by how many of them will just start chomping away. My favorite reaction from a kid was: “Santa, I thought we were supposed to give carrots to your reindeer.”
Bill Swank shares carrots with market visitor Jacob Golubev. Photo: © 2017 Zeena Gregg
How do parents react? Bill: The parents love it. Richard: In our Santas, the parents have an ally who can help their kids buy in to the joy of eating tasty, real food—and we do our best to make it fun.
How else do you spread the word? Richard: In 2013, we formed a team of Real Santas United to compete in the Over The Line baseball tournament in San Diego. It’s our way of calling attention to the need for kids to fundamentally change their eating pattern and lifestyle choices–which includes exercise. Bill: Richard asked me to join the team in 2016. He is a persistent and persuasive guy who came to our home and discussed healthy eating with my wife and me for almost an hour. Now, I carry my baseball bat in one hand and a carrot in the other.
You’re retired. Why do you do this? Richard: We don’t golf. This is where we get our joy, doing something useful.
Any advice for the holidays, Santa? Richard: Let’s give our children the best gift of all: good health.