Thursday, May 5, 2016
Fat Kids: Food for Thought
Every five years, Congress – you remember them – reassess the qualitative and quantative aspects of what seems like an exceptionally secondary issue: the federally-funded school lunch program. The last version up for review now is the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. 94% of America’s primary and secondary public schools participate in this program, generating about $2.6/per child/per meal in gross dollars resulting in about $1/per child/per meal for the actual ingredients. The reduced cost or free meals are provided for 47.5% of all public students, around 20 million students (up to 30 million) per school day, an annual federal budget charge of about $13 billion. The Senate and the House are looking at that program now.
The few school districts that have opted out of the program have done so primarily out of political pressure from conservative groups who do not like the federal government telling local districts what kinds of foods are unhealthy and thus unacceptable, taking business away from the popular fast food/snack-driven fare (governmental interference with a “free market”), high in sugar and fat. Stories abounded of students who left fresh fruit and healthy foods on trays… a factor that has slowly resolved in favor of student acceptance of fresh fare as the best choice. As healthcare experts point out the rising levels of obesity across the land, the school lunch programs could hardly be a contribution to the overall problem. The government’s Centers for Disease Control tell us that 17% of the nation’s two-to-nine-year-olds (12.7 million kids) are technically obese. Early-years eating habits have led to an American overall adult obesity rate, according to the CDC, of 34.9% (78.6 million adults).
According to the CDC, most of childhood obesity is concentrated in the category of families that virtually always avail themselves of the subsidized school lunch program when it is available: “Obesity prevalence was the highest among children in families with an income-to-poverty ratio of 100% or less (household income that is at or below the poverty threshold), followed by those in families with an income-to-poverty ratio of 101%–130%, and then found to be lower in children in families with an income-to-poverty ratio of 131% or larger (greater household income).” For many kids, it is the only decent meal they get.
But Peter, how do you deal with statistics like this? “According to a 2015 New York Times analysis of government and private-sector data, the number of calories consumed annually by the average US child declined 9 percent between 2004 and 2013.” Mother Jones, April 28th. Yeah, but overweight/obese statistics among our children are moving in the wrong direction: “The ‘overweight’ rate—which encompasses the above ‘obese’ categories as well as slightly overweight kids—also nudged upward from an already-high level: 28.8 percent from 1999 to 2000, compared with 33.4 percent from 2013 to 2014, the study found…
“Barry Popkin, a veteran obesity researcher and professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health [tells us] that while kids have eased up on problematic items like sugary sodas in recent years, they're ‘not shifting the quality of [their] diets toward healthy foods.’ Instead, ‘we continue to see our children mainly eat what we would call junk food,’ relying heavily on cookies and other grain-based sweets, along with plenty of salty snacks, fruit juice (which acts an awful lot like soda in our bodies), and other sugary beverages.
“A recent analysis of another big federal data set, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), bears out Popkin's claim. When infants transition from baby food to solid food, they still tend to get plied with plenty of processed junk and few vegetables, the study found (more here). The report noted that 40 percent of babies get brownies or cookies, and that French fries and chips are the most common form of vegetables kids eat by the time they're two years old.” Mother Jones. Still, as noted above, there are conservative congress-people, arguing for a free, consumer-driven market, who think kids should be able to get whatever they crave from federally-funded school lunch programs.
The 2010 above-cited federal statute “included a tiny per-meal budget increase but also required cafeterias to serve more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and cut back on sugar, fat, and salt. It also limited the amount of junk food that can be served in a la carte lines—restricting a practice that has been link to higher obesity rates. And it adopted a program to allow schools in high-poverty areas to automatically offer all students free lunches—a provision widely praised in anti-hunger circles…
“[T]hose healthier food provisions provoked a furious backlash from Tea Party-associated Republicans. In a notorious 2014 rant on the House floor, US Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) thundered against what he called ‘nanny-state lunches.’ Then there's the School Nutrition Association, a group that represents cafeteria administrators but that gets about half its $10 million budget from the food industry. As Politico's Helena Bottemiller Evich reported in 2014, the group initially fought for the changes, but suddenly, in 2014, began ‘standing shoulder to shoulder with House Republicans’ in an effort to gut them.
“In January, the Senate Agriculture Committee cobbled together a bill that preserved the 2010 reforms. But now its counterpart in the House, the Education and Workforce Committee, is pushing a bill that would ease restrictions of sales of junk like chips and cookies in cafeterias. ‘Children as young as five could go from having cookies or fries with their lunches once in a while to buying and eating them every day,’ writes Jessica Donze Black, who directs the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“More egregiously, the proposed House bill would undermine a universal free-lunch programs for many high-poverty schools. Under the 2010 bill, when at least 40 percent of students in a school qualify for free lunches, the school can claim ‘community eligibility’ — meaning all students automatically have access to free lunches. The program eases the administrative burden for these financially strapped schools, allowing them to ‘shift resources from paperwork to higher-quality meals or other educational priorities,’ writes Zoë Neuberger of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It also eliminates the ‘stigma that sometimes accompanies free meals’ and increased meal participation, which in turn, ‘improves student achievement, diets, and behavior,’ she adds.
“The House bill would raise the threshold from 40 to 60 percent. If it becomes law, Neuberger writes, more than 7,000 schools—with nearly 3.4 million students—‘would have to reinstate applications and return to monitoring eligibility in the lunch line within two years.’
“[But] none of these rollbacks are likely anytime soon, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a veteran of the school food wars. That's because First Lady Michelle Obama pushed hard for the 2010 reforms, and her husband will veto any school lunch reauthorization bill that attempts to roll them back. Until a new bill passes, the 2010 reforms hold sway, she said. ‘For once, the status quo is on the side’ of people pushing to widen access to free lunch and remove junk food from the cafeteria, she added.” MotherJones.com, April 27th.
So the question remains: how much do our children mean to us? We have slashed education budgets at every level, made attending college really expensive and reliant on long-term student loans that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy like other debts. We are one of the few nations on earth without mandatory paid pregnancy/material leave. And we still have folks in Congress who want to reduce school lunch benefits and allow junk food to be reintroduced to benefit “free enterprise,” the same people who want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, now needed to cover the exponential growth in type two diabetes, associated heavily (pun intended) with obesity.
I’m Peter Dekom, and when children are no longer a societal priority, what does that say about the people and government who de-prioritized them?