Resolving Childhood Hunger and Obesity

Yesterday afternoon I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Hunger Action Month Virtual Town Hall.  People called from a variety of organizations fighting against childhood hunger and childhood obesity, “two sides of the same coin.”  Sam Kass, White House Assistant Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, spoke on some of First Lady Michelle Obama’s ongoing efforts and also answered several questions from callers in all corners of the country.  Representatives from a selection of organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Feeding America, and Voiced for America’s Children were also available to answer questions. I wanted to discuss a few highlights from this conversation.

First of all, there were some pretty disconcerting statistics mentioned:

  • 1 in 5 children in the U.S. experience food insecurity
  • 1 in 3 children in the U.S. are overweight or obese

When children do not have access to healthy food, it is no wonder why they are at a much higher risk for becoming overweight or obese.  Parents can’t make the right choices if the right choices are not available to them.  If fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grains are not available within a reasonable distance of where they live, they are going to have to make do with what they have access to (with that often being convenience store food or fast food).

Also, the possibility of decreasing SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps”) benefits was discussed.  This is something I find to be of particular importance to the RD and to other health professionals.  Some more alarming statistics from the U.S. Census:

  • More than 46 million Americans (or 1 in 7) lived in poverty in 2011
  • 15.5 million children (1 in 5 American children) live in poverty

According to Matt Knott, CEO of Feeding America, the proposed cut of $16 billion to SNAP would cause:

  • 2-3 million individuals to lose their food assistance entirely
  • An additional 500,000 households would have benefits cut by an average of $90/month
  • Nearly 300,000 children would lose free school meals

Given the dire circumstances of so many families in every state and county across our nation, it is incomprehensible to us that the House Farm Bill would cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) by more than $16 billion.” –Matt Knott

Needless to say, this cut would be detrimental to any and all current efforts to resolve childhood hunger and childhood obesity.  According to First Lady Obama, kids who participate in school meal programs get about half of their daily calories from meals at school.  Therefore, a cut to these benefits could have a disastrous impact on rates of childhood obesity and hunger.  It is our responsibility to make sure they are getting enough of the right nutrients in these meals.

So, what can people do to accelerate progress on some of these issues?

  • Let’s Move has several great resources to get you and your organization more involved
  • Contact your state leaders and community leaders
  • Mayors can set up communities that will foster health (do a quick google search to find your Mayor’s contact information and let him or her know of any ideas you have or initiatives you support)
  • Individual schools (cafeteria chefs, Food Service Directors, etc. often need reminding and encouraging; it is much more important to them if they know it matters to you)

The argument that childhood obesity is one of the greatest threats to national security is another approach you may want to consider.  Since obese children cannot get in shape in 10 weeks (the duration of boot camp), they are not given the option of joining the military.  In a report titled Too Fat to Fight, retired military leaders address the risk presented by the inability of 75% of all young Americans ages 17-24 to join the military.  The leading medical cause of not qualifying: being overweight or obese.  The report considers the school environment to be “instrumental in fostering healthful eating habits that will last a lifetime” and calls on Congress to:

  • Get junk food out of schools
  • Increase funding to improve nutritional standards in schools
  • Provide access to effective programs that cut obesity

This angle provides a valid argument: obese children cannot become soldiers.  If we want out children to have the opportunity to fight for our country and if we want our military to be strong and ready to fight, we need to keep them healthy and fit.  There is no simple solution, but it is clear that we’re going to need to fight even harder than we already have.

You know I could go on, but I think I’ve given you quite a bit to think about! I do apologize for the lengthiness of this post… There’s just so much to say and so much that we can be doing to resolve these problems.  I hope you get the chance to become part of the solution!

For more ideas, check out what the Tennessee Obesity Taskforce has been up to!

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Harvesting school lunches

“Farm to School is broadly defined as a program that connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers.” – Farm to School

The Farm to School Program has provided major improvements in the quality of school meals and local farm support.  This week I want to feature a classmate’s blog, which focuses on school nutrition with special emphasis on Farm to School programs.  Kayleigh Force’s blog Farmin’ It has lots of great posts about Farm to School Programs, cookbooks for these programs, school gardening efforts, and sustainability in the world of school nutrition.

 

The farm to school movement has been instrumental in school nutrition efforts made by Michelle Obama.  Our First Lady has even created a spectacular garden at the White House and the USDA launched the initiative “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.”

If you are interested in the Farm to School Program, please visit Farmin’ It, as there is a lot more information on such topics found there.

Selling junk to kids

Marketing junk food to children has become a major source of debate over the past several years.  The countless sources of marketing children are being exposed to have continued to multiply.  Last year, efforts were made by the Interagency Working Group on Foods Marketed to Children to finally do something about this growing problem.  This organization was directed by congress to come up with nutrition guidelines for foods that are marketed to children.

“The guidelines focus on two “nutrition principles” for foods marketed to children: Ads and marketing campaigns should encourage kids to choose nutritional foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat; and foods aimed at children should have limits on saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar and sodium. The target date for getting everyone on board is 2016.” (Source)

“We’re Not Buying It,” a video featuring representatives from Yale, CSPI, Prevention Institute, among other organizations was created in an attempt to get the Obama Administration to support these changes.  Unfortunately lobbying has proven to be a barrier yet again, even for voluntary guidelines.

Although the recommended guidelines are far from perfect and other considerations need to be made, the idea of limiting what foods can be marketed to children is quite promising.  This could be one of the most effective ways to start fighting the growth of childhood obesity.

For information on how to get you kids to eat more fruits and veggies, listen to my Podcast!

 Podcast Script

Farmers of fortune

At the very root of questions like “Why does salad cost more than a cheeseburger?” or “Why are cashews more expensive than steak?” lays the farm bill.  This single piece of legislation has more control over what we eat and who profits from it than any other combination of legislature.

What is the farm bill?

Every five years or so comes new and “improved” federal laws that govern programs centered on food and agricultural in the US.  At this time, it is generally decided where billions of dollars in subsidies will go.

What’s the problem?

The problem is that most of these billions of dollars go to the same handful of agribusinesses.  And the distribution is far from representative of federal nutrition regulations.

“The farm bill doles out billions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies to the largest five commodity crops: corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans. Those payments go out, regardless of need, and they mostly fail to help the nation’s real working farm and ranch families. In fact, since 1995, just 10 percent of subsidized farms – the largest and wealthiest operations – have raked in 74 percent of all subsidy payments. 62 percent of farms in the United States did not collect subsidy payments…”  –Top 10 Things You Should Know About The Farm Bill – Sara Sciammacco

Sadly, much of the food subsidies paid for out of our own pockets goes to animal feed. Instead of putting the money towards what the federal government rightfully recommends we eat, we’re feeding it to the cows that we are correctly suggested to eat less of.  It seems obvious that the government would have plenty of reason to subsidize the foods it openly recommends, but such government agendas are rarely what one would consider logical.

More Information:

Food Politics

PCRM (Includes an awesome image… Really makes you think)

Committee on Agriculture


This entry was posted on April 12, 2012. 1 Comment

Menus exposed!

The debate of whether or not we should know exactly what’s in what we are being served continues. Should restaurants (particularly fast service) be required to openly inform consumers of the caloric content in what they offer? The food industry says no (of course) because if we care about what we’re eating, we’ll eat the healthier option and we can just make the assumption that it is going to be good (or at least better) for us. Besides… we’re all too ignorant to make wise decisions based on nutrition facts…right? Oh, and not to mention… if we actually are smarter than the average bear… they won’t get our money. So there’s that…

On the other hand, the consumer side says yes (for obvious reasons), we should know. Growing rates of obesity and diet-related disease nationwide also suggest it might be helpful to know what we’re taking in when we’re eating out. The history of this debate had previously been quite discouraging, but it seems there’s hope we’ll be sailing in the right direction at least for a while.

In March of 2010, President Obama signed a long overdue law that required the FDA to issue federal menu label regulations. Although the proposed regulations fall short on many counts (movie theater snacks and alcoholic beverages are excluded in these regulations, along with other shortcomings), there are some pretty exciting changes included! Unfortunately, nothing is set in stone yet and if the Supreme Court votes out Obamacare, it might put a damper on menu labeling. Check out Marion Nestle’s Blog, as she is extremely knowledgeable on this topic!

Anyway, the changes are so very exciting regardless of whether or not they are implemented, so lets take a look:

1. The menu-labeling requirement will apply to any retail food establishments with twenty or more locations in the US.
2. Caloric content of all items will be required on all menus (printed menus, menu boards, drive-through menus, online, etc.)
3. More information on calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and more, must be provided to customers upon request.
4. A statement defining the total daily-recommended calories must also appear on each menu.
5. Vending machines are covered too!
Source: Yale Rudd Center

Menu labeling could have such an amazing impact on the daily food choices Americans make. Of course, many of us will ignore the caloric content and order whatever we want (and that’s perfectly fine), but we still deserve to make that decision for ourselves.

If you’re enjoying Nutripolicy, check out my LinkedIn!

What’s for lunch?

School nutrition policy seems to be a good place to start for Nutripolicy. It is, after all, a topic at the forefront of the world of nutrition policy (Thank you, First Lady Obama!). I hope we can all agree that the food we serve to our children in public schools is more than just a meal.  Lunch time provides opportunities for us both to teach our children about food and nutrition and to make sure they’re getting important nutrients they may not be getting elsewhere. I would even argue that it is oftentimes the only channel to proper education on nutrition a school-aged child is exposed to.

Let’s face it, most kids don’t go home from school to a MyPlate-esque dinner every night. As the world gets a little crazier and a lot busier, so do parents, and meals must often be rushed.  Pizza. Frozen dinners. Too much food. Not enough food. If this is what we’re being exposed to as kids, it’s what we become accustomed to as adults. But if we eat like that all the time, we are indeed going to have problems later on.

This is where school lunches (and sometimes breakfasts too) come in.  They can provide one-third (or two-thirds) of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) of protein, Vitamins A&C, iron, calcium, and calories.

Why is change so difficult? 

Changing the way we feed our children is not a simple as it sounds.  The food industry has more than enough reason not to miss a single beat when it comes to school nutrition policy change.  Food corporations are invested in the status quo, and policy change could mean losing hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, in 2011, the food industry spent $40 million on lobbying efforts.  It is clear how much they have to lose if that is what they are willing to spend annually in order to prevent it.  After all, unhealthy food does cost more than healthy food.  So why would they care about healthy futures when they’re making so much money?

What’s new?

There have been dozens of alterations to child nutrition programs over the past 60+ years (Check them out: School Nutrition Association), but we still have a long way to go.  There had been essentially no improvement over the last 15 years or so, until recently.

In January of this year, Michelle Obama and Tom Vilsack announced exciting new school nutrition guidelines.  The USDA’s comparison chart can best explain these changes (to come in September of this year).  Here are some of the highlights:

  • More fruits and vegetables
  • Weekly requirements for types of vegetables (no more French fries or tomato sauce 5 days a week!)
  • More whole grains (at least half for now, and ALL grains must be whole grain rich by July 2014)
  • Milk must be 1% or fat-free, flavored milk must be fat-free

There is still plenty of work that needs to be done with respect to school lunches and other food-related sales in public schools.  Standards for competitive foods and beverages sold or provided in schools during school hours need to be established.  There should also be some control over what is offered through fundraising, concession stands, and school-related events.  Massachusetts has adopted new policies around all of these cases and many more.

The USDA’s National School Lunch Program has taken a big step in the right direction.  Hopefully we can continue to move forward and generate even greater change over the next several years.