Fighting the childhood obesity epidemic

Yesterday morning the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held a hearing on childhood nutrition programs and their importance to our nation’s health, economy, and national security. The Committee questioned a panel of experts on the matter of school lunch nutrition. The panel consisted of General Richard Hawley of the U.S. Air Force, National Parent Teacher Association President Mr. Otha Thornton, pediatrician and professor Dr. Stephen Cook, and Maryland middle school principal Ms. Yolanda Stanislaus. A video of the hearing and panel members’ testimony transcripts can be found here. The underlying problem addressed at the hearing was the crippling paradox of childhood hunger and childhood obesity in the U.S. Both problems are pertinent and detrimental to the overall wellbeing of our nation’s youth and therefore our nation’s future.

According to Dr. Cook, 1 in 3 American children are obese, a rate that has tripled since the 1963. More than 90 percent of U.S. children meet none or only one of the five components that the American Heart Association uses to define a healthy diet. The origins of the obesity epidemic can be linked to a number of nutrition factors, such as higher costs for healthy foods (fruits and vegetables), cheaper junk foods and beverages high in sugars and unhealthy fats, bigger portion sizes, and increased school vending machine and a la carte foods. What is the cost of treating obesity-related illnesses in the U.S.? The figure has tripled in just over a decade, from $78 billion in 1998 to $270 billion in 2009. Dr. Cook went on to say that nutrition is at a “critical window” for school-aged children, and that improved nutrition is a “unique biological opportunity to improve” their quality of life. However nutrition isn’t everything, Dr. Cook assured; limits of screen time (where kids consume calories not burn them), sleep, and exercise are also critically important to a child’s health. Dietary nutrition is also a viable educational subject and is underutilized in our nations schools.

An interesting perspective on the issue at hand was brought from the military standpoint, with 75% of Americans today deemed “unfit for service.” The U.S. Military has had to turn down 62,000 recruits because of obesity issues since 2006. 1,200 servicemen and women are discharged from the military every year because of obesity, and the cost to replace each one of these soldiers is $75,000. This adds up to $90 million per year. It was actually because of malnourished U.S. soldiers that the National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 as an act addressing national security. As General Hawley emphasized, childhood nutrition is an issue indirectly but undoubtedly affecting our nation’s security.

Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow pointed out that America spends $14 billion per year to combat childhood obesity, and that the price of adding an apple to school lunch is $0.14. She recited the Benjamin Franklin quote “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Indeed, it is much cheaper to keep kids healthy and active than face the brunt of the financial burden brought on by obesity.

On the other side of the paradox are the 1 in 5 U.S. students struggling with hunger. For them, free and reduced lunch and breakfast programs are often all the food they get in a given day. This food is not enough to sustain a healthy lifestyle, and is certainly an obstacle in those students’ learning. There emerges the question, with additional funding should we improve the quality of free and reduced programs for some, or offer lunch and breakfast to all? On one hand, the students that are more likely to lack healthy food outside of school would benefit more from increased nutrition in school foods. On the other hand, only serving breakfast to those students on free and reduced lunch is alienating, and carries a social stigma to it that is eliminated when all students are receiving breakfast.

Numbers aside, better nutrition for schoolchildren has ubiquitous benefits to the American public. As Ms. Stanislaus testified and cited from the 2012 No Kid Hungry study, students with adequate nutrition have higher test scores, higher rates of attendance, lower rates of tardiness, and are 20% more likely to graduate. The opposite is true for students not receiving adequate nutrition, trends leading to lesser employment and finances in the long run. Earth Day Network remains a strong supporter of better nutrition in school, and actively advocates for this cause. The nutrition investment is not only the cost of a meal but an investment in a better future. Pardon the pun, but school nutrition truly is a “low hanging fruit” in the fight against childhood obesity. It is not a silver bullet, but an important piece of the puzzle towards a healthier, safer, and more productive nation.

Author: Ben Criswell, EDN Intern