Insights by Goldie
Diet is a national security issue

Sound Consumer | March 2011

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

With March designated Nutrition Month by the American Dietetic Association, it’s a good cue to bring up the intertwined problems of how we as a nation are (or are not) addressing childhood hunger and its closely related counterpoints: overeating, under-nourishment and obesity.

We must get serious about the critical health issues facing our kids, families and the nation.

Time flies: Congress passed the first National School Lunch Act in 1946, although as early as 1936 the government was shocked at the inadequate diet among youth. It allocated, via the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), commodities to state-funded school lunch programs.

A national security issue

The blunt language in the 1946 Act declared it “... a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the states through grants and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of non-profit school lunch programs.”

Yes, 65 years ago, guarding the health and fitness of the nation’s youth was declared a serious issue of “national security,” in part because military officials were worried about the high number of young men unable to pass physical exams. The nation was in recovery from the Depression and at war — and poor youth health centered on inadequate food, bad nutrition and, typically, serious underweight.

Today’s nutrient deficits diverge sharply: 32 percent of kids 6 to 19 are grossly overweight or clinically obese (with more than 32 percent body fat).

Many suffer from “adult” diseases (generally associated with diet, obesity and aging), exhibiting high risk factors, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arterial plaque, and Type 2 diabetes (once called “adult onset” diabetes). Not surprisingly, many kids now take prescribed treatment drugs — not necessarily designed for kids.

In April 2010, the U.S. military released figures showing that (surprise!) 27 percent of our youth, ages 17 to 24, are too overweight to serve in the military. If lack of youth physical fitness was a national security emergency in 1946, what should it be considered today?

Funding childhood nutrition

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act enacted last year added $4.5 billion in new funding over 10 years to promote health and reduce childhood obesity. The first new money in three decades, it aims to provide healthier foods in schools, child care settings, adult care programs, and an upgrade and expansion of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

It provides $40 million to establish school gardens and organic and local foods in school cafeterias — all great-sounding ideas and commendable. But buried in layers of bureaucracy, how far will the money go?

Currently, schools receive a $2.68 reimbursement from the government for each free school meal. The new funding would add 6 cents. Yet new standards haven’t been established and details already are contentious.

The mainstream giant food processors will fight many aspects, including a shift away from certain products. Funding is controversial because the increase dips into food stamp funding.

This January, USDA’s proposed “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs” was filed. This is the first formal upgrade attempt in 15 years, with proposed standards essentially shaped by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Most commendably, the standards would increase servings and choices of fruits and vegetables, emphasize more whole grains, and allow only non-fat or low-fat milk.

But, the sacred cow (milk) still could have unlimited sugars, chocolate or other flavors! Why? The dairy lobby, of course, but also (most shamefully!) the National School Food Nutritionists, who fear kids won’t drink “white” stuff!

Sugar levels in foods? Ignored. Sodium levels? Slow reduction over 10 years. Saturated fat? Reduced from 10 percent currently to 7 percent.

Until major industrial food and agricultural lobbyists are brought to heel and exposed — and/or until we de-couple USDA’s incompatible mandates of “public nutrition promotion” and “ agricultural marketing” — then the trump card in this game will never favor the nation’s kids, elders or ... most of us. Yet we must keep trying!

More about: diet, health care, health concerns, nutrition

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