U.S. House, Senate both looking at child nutrition issues and combating childhood obesity
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Congressman Jared Polis wants the Department of Agriculture to create a pilot project aimed at delivering healthier lunches in school cafeterias around the country.
“Childhood obesity has tripled over the past thirty years, and children are increasingly afflicted with adult diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, as a direct result of their unhealthy diet and lifestyles,” Polis said in a statement on his introduction of the The Healthy School Meals Act (H.R. 4870).
The measure is aimed at curbing an epidemic of childhood obesity — “one of the greatest threats to America’s health and economy,” according to First Lady Michelle Obama. Polis wants to expand access to healthy alternatives in school cafeterias.
One provision would offer incentives, in the form of supplemental funding, for schools that offer healthier, vegetable-based meal options.
Slow Food USA, a nonprofit group promoting more food consciousness, has a national online campaign advocating for healthier school meals.
The U.S. Senate is also considering a measure to improve school meals. Arkansas Senator Blanche Nelson introduced a Child Nutrition Act that would provide up to $4.5 billion in new child nutrition funding over ten years. Lincoln’s draft measure boosts funding for child nutrition programs by $500 million per year, and includes stronger nutrition standards.
“The easiest way to stop kids from eating fatty foods is by providing them with the healthiest options possible, but many schools simply cannot afford them.” Polis said. This bill will help a growing nationwide effort to improve children’s eating patterns by encouraging and supporting schools to offer more healthy eating options,” he added.
The Healthy School Meals Act makes plant-based foods more affordable and available for schools to purchase and provides incentives for schools to provide them to students through their federally-funded breakfast and lunch programs. It also removes restrictions on providing healthy drink alternatives with school lunches, thus improving the nutrition of millions of children who often lack vital nutrients because they are lactose intolerant or do not drink milk for religious reasons.
According to the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. In the six to 12-year age group, nearly 20 percent of children fall into the obese category, up from just 6.5 percent in 1980, with a similar increase in the 12 to 18-year age group.
Children eat too much fat, saturated fat and sodium and don’t get enough fiber, whole grains, fruits or vegetables. Most schools are struggling to meet the federal nutritional guidelines. More than 70 percent of schools regularly fail to meet USDA’s standards for saturated fat (less than 10 percent of calories) and total fat (no more than 30 percent of calories).
According to the latest research, children who eat school-purchased lunches are more likely to be overweight and obese, and less likely to eat enough fruits and vegetables. Numerous scientific studies have shown the benefits of low‐fat, high‐fiber, plant‐based options for adults and children.
However, 80 percent of school districts do not have a single school that offered plant-based options at any time, according to a 2009 School Nutrition Association report. Under current law, schools are not required to offer nondairy milk alternatives to students who cannot or do not want to drink milk due to lactose intolerance, religious or ethical reasons, or other dietary preferences. As a result, many children are left without key nutrients during the school day.
The Polis bill has widespread bipartisan support.
Key provisions of H.R. 4870 – The Healthy School Meals Act:
· Pilot Program: Directs USDA to conduct a two-year pilot program to provide selected school food authorities with plant-based alternate protein products and nondairy milk substitutes at no cost.
· More Plant-Based Commodities: Based on the pilot evaluation’s findings, USDA will purchase healthier protein products and milk substitutes through the commodities purchase program, making them available at a reduced cost.
· Incentives for Schools: School districts where at least two-thirds of the students are offered vegetarian entrées on their lunch menus will receive supplemental commodity assistance.
· Healthy Milk Alternatives: Schools will offer students a substitute for milk that meets nutritional standards established by USDA for calcium, vitamin D, and other key nutrients and will be reimbursed for meals that include a healthy milk alternative. An estimated 25 percent of the U.S. population is lactose intolerant; this includes 70 percent of African Americans, 90 percent of Asian Americans, 53 percent of Hispanic Americans, and 74 percent of Native Americans.