WWII Program Enlisted for War on Childhood Obesity
Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, February 8, 2010
A federal program that began in 1946 to remedy the shocking malnutrition among World War II recruits is being transformed into ground zero in the nation's new war against obesity.
The national school lunch program and other food programs under the Child Nutrition Act may be the most promising avenue to improve the nutrition of a generation of children who think food comes out of a wrapper and who face shorter lives because of their rising weight.
The costs of treating the chronic illnesses stemming from obesity, already at $147 billion a year in the United States, threaten to swamp the nation's foundering health care system.
"Think of it as a down payment on a preventative health care program," said Anthony Geraci, director of food and nutrition for the Baltimore City Public Schools, who won an award for purchasing $1 million a year from local farms. "The up-front costs of feeding our kids better food are wiped out on the back end by the high cost of treating Type 2 diabetes. To me, it's a no-brainer."
This program and a several others that feed more than 31 million children a day - and half of all infants born in the nation - will be at the center of a new anti-obesity campaign that first lady Michelle Obama will roll out Tuesday, with a preview today by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the National Press Club.
Connecting kids, food
Once-radical innovations are starting to go mainstream, including the school gardening movement pioneered by restaurateur Alice Waters at Berkeley public schools that is intended to reconnect children with real food.
Vilsack has fielded a "Farm to School Tactical Team" of USDA advisers to carry out the once-novel idea of linking schools with local farmers. National nutrition standards are being upgraded, schools got stimulus money to help them rebuild their kitchens, and training of school food preparers is getting increased attention.
Students and teachers are using Web sites that display actual school meals to shame school cafeterias into compliance. The sites show schools attempting with varying degrees of success to add fresh vegetables and fruits to their offerings.
At Fedupwithschoollunch.blogspot.com, there's something called "popcorn chicken" paired with a pear, and a packaged peanut butter and jelly "graham cracker sandwich" accompanied by apple slices.
At Americanlunchroom.com, a Berkeley lunch shows a fresh chicken taco with freshly prepared pinto beans, salad and a plum, while a school lunch in Chicago offers corn chips with cheese sauce, french fries, canned pears in syrup and chocolate milk.
"I know a lot of people think school lunches are getting better, although if you ask parents and kids I doubt they would have that opinion, " said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education at of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
School chefs say it's hard to feed children a decent meal on $1, which is what many have left after overhead costs.
The Obama administration budgeted an extra $1 billion a year for school lunch programs to expand access and raise reimbursements to districts for the meals they serve. Schools now get $2.68 per lunch, and more for partly and fully subsidized meals for poor students.
"There are some food service managers around the country who have just made amazing transformations, using much more fresh food, more local food, getting rid of the packaged and processed foods," said Leslie Mikkelsen, managing director of the Prevention Institute, an Oakland nonprofit. "These are the model for where we want to go as a nation."
The Prevention Institute's broad approach to improving nutrition and physical activity in poor communities is being picked up by the administration, whose new budget proposed a "healthy food financing initiative" that would attract grocery stores to poor neighborhoods and help independent grocers improve their offerings.
In schools, many are trying to force fast-food vendors and snack vending machines to meet the same nutrition requirements that school cafeterias must meet.
These "competitive foods" are sold to the same children who are getting subsidized federal meals, said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group in Washington. "There is very broad agreement that there needs to be some tougher regulation of food that isn't part of the federal programs."
President and Michelle Obama have adopted what may appear to be conflicting goals: Michelle Obama wants to end obesity, and her husband's goal is to end childhood hunger.
There is what some call an unexplained paradox of rising obesity and "food insecurity" in poor households. Weill contends that part of the explanation lies with the higher cost of fresh, healthier food, the lack of opportunity for safe physical activity in poor neighborhoods, a lack of stores selling fresh food there, and the lack of time by working parents to prepare fresh meals.
Geraci, the Baltimore chef, said many children no longer know what a fresh, ripe peach even tastes like.
Better food at school, where children spend most of their hours, can help diets at home, many nutritional experts believe.
Geraci focuses on "nutrient dense" foods: "so maybe instead of french fries, do a baked sweet potato fry," he said. "It's a super food. It still hits all the flavor stuff that kids crave, but it's much better for you. Instead of feeding your kid a chicken nugget that's mostly corn syrup and soy, why not feed them a quarter-chicken that's baked with fresh herbs?"
Vilsack said a recent survey found that only one-third of all high school students met recommended levels of physical activity; about a quarter of them played video or computer games three or more hours on average each school day, and one-third watched television three hours or more on an average weekday.
Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, will have principal authority over rewriting the Child Nutrition Act this year and said his objectives are to improve access and nutrition quality.
A tale of 2 school lunches
Nutritional quality of public school lunches varies widely. Menu examples at high schools in Berkeley and Chicago in 2009:
Berkeley: Chicken taco, organic brown rice, fresh-cooked pinto beans, sour cream, salad and a plum.
Chicago: Corn chips with cheese sauce, french fries, ketchup, pears in syrup and chocolate milk.