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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