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Federal Initiatives Target Child Nutrition

By Michele McNeil & Ian Quillen — February 16, 2010 6 min read
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States and school districts have tried to promote healthier foods and distribute them to more students, but the possibility of national nutrition reform may be starting to show some real teeth.

Between a push to reauthorize the 64-year-old federal school meals program and a new anti-obesity campaign headed by the first lady, the Obama administration is proposing changes that stretch across both the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture and tackle everything from vending-machine sweets to parents who don’t encourage children to play outside.

If successful, those efforts—which would involve the White House and both federal agencies—could affect not only the government’s role in promoting healthy lifestyles among children, but also how agencies work across departmental boundaries to institute such policies.

The Agriculture Department initiative is part of the planned reauthorization of the $18 billion school lunch and breakfast programs, with an emphasis on improving nutrition standards that critics say haven’t changed much since the programs’ conception in 1946.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s conference call last week to address the plan. Mr. Duncan has been trying to break through traditional agency barriers to work on the problem of access and quality to school meals.

The event followed first lady Michelle Obama’s rollout on Feb. 9 of a nationwide campaign called “Let’s Move” that will encourage more physical activity for children, healthier foods, and more accurate food labeling.

Improving Access

In outlining his plans, Mr. Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, said the goals for the school lunch and breakfast reauthorization are twofold: to improve access to free or reduced-price meals and to boost their nutritional value.

The agriculture secretary pointed out that while there are 31 million students in 102,000 schools that take advantage of free- or reduced-price lunches, only 11 million in 88,000 schools also get free- or reduced-price breakfast.

Federal officials say that gap exists either because students or families don’t take advantage of breakfast, or because their schools don’t offer it. Often, it costs schools more to provide the free meals than they receive in federal reimbursement. Mr. Vilsack has proposed a $1 billion increase.

Officials at the Agriculture and Education departments estimate that as many as one-third of children who may be eligible don’t take advantage of the meal programs, for many reasons. It could be students don’t like the stigma that may be attached, or the paperwork is too complicated, or families simply don’t know about it.

At the Agriculture Department event, Mr. Duncan said that one of the biggest barriers when he was the Chicago public schools’ chief executive officer was getting parents to sign up. “There’s a lot of paperwork, it’s bureaucratic,” he said. Yet “we think children can’t do their best academically if they’re hungry.”

And given the sour economy, it’s likely more children are going hungry. While officials have seen a rise in the number of people qualifying for and taking advantage of food stamps in the down economy, Mr. Vilsack said the same increase has not been seen in the breakfast and lunch programs.

To improve access, federal officials want to promote better use of the direct-certification process, in which families that qualify for food stamps have their children automatically enrolled in school meals programs. Although all states offer that, Mr. Vilsack said school districts are not “proficient” at maximizing the opportunity.

As for the quality of school meals, Mr. Vilsack on Feb. 8 publicized plans to require schools to offer more nutritious options in school vending machines as part of what it is seeking in congressional reauthorization of the Childhood Nutrition Act.

In that speech, he said such reauthorization should include a push to jettison cookies, cakes, pastries, and salty food from school vending machines and cafeteria lines. Mr. Vilsack said schools need to help children eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

“Food served in vending machines and the a la carte line shouldn’t undermine our efforts to enhance the health of the school environment,” he said. “We must have the capacity to set standards for all the foods served and sold in schools.”

Many states and districts have already enacted similar measures. And some say the fact that the federal government is even talking about it will help encourage more local changes.

Legislation in South Carolina, for example, would ban school-hour sales of high-fat, high-sugar foods and drinks at all grade levels, whether in the cafeteria, canteen, or hallways. That measure appears to have stalled, but a change in the national climate toward school nutrition helped it progress for a time, said Todd Bedenbaugh, the director of health and nutrition for the South Carolina education department.

“I would love for us to have a national standard, with the USDA having responsibility [for] food sold on campus,” Mr. Bedenbaugh said. “I’d love to say it’s going to happen. I hope it does. ... [But] we’ve still got to get our kids to do more and get them more active and to eat better at home and in school.”

Anti-Obesity Campaign

Getting children to be more active and parents to be more involved is a major priority in Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” public-awareness campaign against childhood obesity in the United States.

One in three American children is overweight or obese, putting them at higher risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other illnesses. And public-health experts say today’s children are on track to have shorter lifespans than their parents.

“None of us wants this future for our kids,” Mrs. Obama said at the White House event. “We have to act, so let’s move.”

The ambitious campaign, which the first lady hopes will be seen as her legacy, is aimed at solving the childhood-obesity problem in a generation, so that children born today can reach adulthood at a healthy weight.

She plans to enlist help from several avenues. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, will work with food manufacturers and retailers toward the goal of making food labels more “customer friendly,” and the American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to monitor children’s body mass index.

The federal government may also offer $400 million in tax breaks to encourage grocery stores to locate in “food deserts,” communities with limited supplies of nutritious food, an action that would require congressional action.

“This isn’t like a disease where we’re still waiting for the cure to be discovered. We know the cure for this,” Mrs. Obama said.

David Binkle, the deputy director of food services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said his system has already acted. The district, which serves 650,000 meals a day, is implementing eight Institute of Medicine recommendations made to the USDA in a report last October, Mr. Binkle said.

He also noted such initiatives as removing carbonated beverages from schools and allowing students at least 20 minutes to eat from the time they receive their meals.

Mr. Binkle said federal initiatives will be welcome—if a bit overdue.

“A lot of things have not changed in terms of the [federal] program since 1946,” he said. “I think it’s just a sexy thing right now when it really comes down to it, and it has some support from the Obama administration.”

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil and the Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Twin Federal Initiatives Target Child Nutrition, Fitness

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