A weighty problem

Photo by Chris Capaci

In 2000, nearly 14 percent of American kids were overweight, almost triple the percentage in 1960, when it was less than five percent. By 2004, that proportion had increased to 17 percent.

“It’s powerful stuff and why we’re here,” said Mary Jo Mueller, director of food services for the Carmel school district in Putnam County. She was speaking at Health Quest’s recent first annual conference on childhood obesity in November.

Municipal departments of health, school district food departments, and nonprofit agencies as well as medical professionals attended the event at the Grandview in Poughkeepsie, which highlighted the challenges and discussed local programs.


Reversing these trends is proving very difficult. Mueller conceded that so far her district’s substantial efforts “have had no effect on childhood obesity.” The Carmel district, which has been collecting weight and body-mass data for the kids from the schools (some schools are resistant to this), is facing difficult budgetary constraints, as are other districts.

Deborah Gesner, manager of project development at Health Quest, said the turnout at the conference and participants’ degree of engagement had pleased her. “I’d like to see this become an annual event and grow,” she said.

The large amount of effort placed so far in dealing with the problem seems just the beginning, however. It appears that an immense amount of work and lobbying will be needed to succeed in defeating childhood obesity. The kind of honest assessment and brainstorming that occurred at the Poughkeepsie conference was a promising beginning. But just a beginning.

Kids are getting fatter. One culprit is the overly starchy, sugary and processed foods they are served at school lunch. The national school-lunch program requires schools to meet the dietary guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the guidelines fall short in bringing fresh produce and whole, unprocessed foods to cafeteria tables. The tight budgets of school-district food-services departments don’t help, either.

It seemed last year that reform at the federal level was about to happen. Under pressure from the Obama administration, which is committed to reducing child obesity, the USDA proposed the first changes to the guidelines in 15 years. The changes would have increased the servings of fresh fruits and green vegetables and reduced the amount of potatoes and salt.

In November, Congress blocked the implementation of new rules when it failed to authorize $6.9 billion in additional agricultural funding. This was a win for the interests that profit from supplying kids with the crummy food contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic. It was a loss for the kids fated to keep putting on the pounds at the school-lunch table.

The $6.9 billion in extra money, which would have been spent over the next five years, would have increased the cost of each lunch by 14 cents — which seems a modest enough investment in children’s heath, especially considering the potential savings in health-care costs later on otherwise.

Under the current dietary guidelines, a slice of pizza qualifies as a vegetable — a loophole reminiscent of former president Ronald Reagan’s much-ridiculed proposal to qualify ketchup as a vegetable (in this case the proposed guidelines would have required at least a quarter-cup of tomato paste, basically putting pizza off limits). The current rules also allow potatoes, including french fries, to qualify as a vegetable. The Obama administration’s attempt to limit the servings allowed per week was recently shot down by a congressional amendment after intensive lobbying by the National Potato Council.

The continued consumption of fries, processed pizza, sweetened apple sauce, and other foods that qualify as a fruit or vegetable but don’t actually make the grade means kids will likely continue to tip the scales. A recently completed 20-year study of more than 120,000 adults by the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the New England Journal of Medicine last June, found that the participants who were healthy and of normal weight in 1986 (when the project commenced) gained an average of 3.35 pounds every four-year period, a gain strongly associated with eating potato chips and other potato products, sugar-sweetened beverages, red meat and processed meats. In contrast, the study found that the participants’ intake of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and yogurt was associated with weight loss.

The science is starting to back up the conclusions of common sense. It obviously will take more than that to persuade Congress that the interests it is advocating for represent a very bad bargain for kids.

Mueller enumerated the multiple causes that are making too many kids fat: the blitz of advertising for junk food targeted to children, supersized portions (high-school students are accustomed to the gigantic servings they get at diners, she noted), working parents who don’t have time to cook healthy food for their children, and a sedentary American lifestyle greatly exacerbated by computer technology and kids’ long hours at the screen.

Like all New York State school districts, the Carmel district’s food program is self-supporting, dependent on revenues from the sale of a-la-carte items (in essence, snacks), lunch and breakfast meal reimbursements by the government, and the use of federal commodity foods distributed to school districts for free. The commodity foods include healthy items such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, turkey, ground beef, and fresh fruit, said Mueller.

Nationally, 5.2 billion school lunches are served annually, with 95 percent of the nation’s schools participating in the NSLP. At Carmel, as at other school districts in the state, economic hardship has caused the number of free and reduced meals to increase. In Carmel, 14 percent of all meals serve are free or reduced, compared to eight percent eleven years ago, Mueller said.

Carmel’s wellness policy, in effect since 2006. is subject to review every few years by a committee. The policy eliminated all fried foods from cafeterias and required snack foods to meet certain nutrition guidelines, including beverages at the middle school that do not contain additional sweeteners. Foods containing transfats have been banned. Only low-fat milk and salad dressings are served. Boar’s Head low-sodium products are served as cold cuts. Budget constraints are impeding efforts to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Changing the children’s habits in the Carmel district has proven very difficult “High school students like French fries,” said Muller. “We have a lot of healthy garbage cans. The food isn’t going into children’s bodies.”


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There are 2 comments

  1. Bill

    I saw the man pictured in the above photograph with an “Amateur Gynecologist” shirt at a Jefferson Stationwagon show in Deltona. Brings me back!

  2. Jenn Reid

    I believe more schools need to get children interested in where their food comes from, what’s really important in their daily lives besides learning fractions. Many schools on Long Island ( on the east end ) have school gardens which actually provide fresh produce for the lunchroom, even through the winter ( we have fresh lettuce, etc). Roof top gardens and outdoor gardens ( that can be used for hands- on science discussions as well as for eating purposes are necessary.) This can fall under environmental education ( which is has already been implemented in many districts through the U.S., especially in Minnesota.)

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