Ensuring Every American Child Has Access to Healthy and Affordable Food: A “Gentle” Wish For a New Decade

Knowing that the obesity epidemic in the United States has some scientists predicting that for the first time in history American children will live shorter lives than their parents, my wish for the next decade is to see First Lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama and his administration succeed in their mission to ensure that every American child has access to healthy and affordable food. A recent gathering of Obama Administration officials invited to discuss their efforts to improve America’s food system left me hopeful that my wish will come true.

Last month in D.C. Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Dora Hughes, Counselor to the Secretary of Health, and Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator for the First Lady each shared their goals for the next year during an event for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Community Program.  Surprisingly it wasn’t their words that left me so inspired; rather it was the words of 10-year-old David Martinez-Ruiz. Kass shared with the audience a letter that the D.C. elementary school student had presented to the First Lady following his class visit to the White House Garden:

One of the things that I want to say about being at the White House was how gentle the feeling was. It felt surprisingly natural to be there. We planted on a warm day. The sun was out and there was a little breeze. The grass was beautiful and green. The people made us feel good. I liked the way the staff person who helped me was very gentle with the worms we found. I think about the garden as being gentle: gentle with nature, gentle to your body, and gentle with each other.

There was not a dry eye in the house after Kass finished reading that letter. David’s sentiments regarding the White House garden were shared by many of his Bancroft Elementary School classmates. Kass says it is experiences with kids like David that continue to spur the First Lady to champion new and creative ways to help children regain a healthy connection to food and physical activity. By doing so, Mrs. Obama hopes she can help her husband’s administration lead the way in the fight to end the childhood obesity epidemic in America.

The obesity rate in the U.S. has doubled since 1980. According to Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelious, “over two thirds of American adults — and almost one out of every five American children — are obese or overweight.” Shockingly the CDC found that the number of adolescents who are overweight has actually tripled in the last 30 years. Being overweight increases a child’s risk of developing a laundry list of preventable diseases including: heart disease, asthma, and type 2 diabetes. In fact, one in three kids born in 2000 are at risk of developing diabetes in their lifetime — for children of color that rate is even greater.

So what’s going on? Why are our children so heavy? Ostensibly, the answer seems to be simple — kids are consuming too many calories and not moving enough. However, obesity experts Drs. David Kessler and Kelly Brownell argue that the root cause is much more complicated. Both point to underlying forces that have powerful influence over what our kids are eating and craving — namely the abundance of easily accessible and inexpensive processed foods.

Dr. Kessler, a pediatrician, former FDA Commissioner and author of, “The End of Overeating,” claims that the way food companies process, package and market foods plays a key role in the obesity epidemic. Many of these processed foods contain significantly higher levels of fat, sugar and salt, and when consumed it is believed that they trigger primal cravings to eat more. Dr. Kessler calls it, “conditioned hypereating.” He says that research has found in both animals and humans that, “eating foods high in sugar, fat and salt makes us eat more foods high in sugar, fat and salt.”

Processed foods have become ubiquitous in the American diet and make their way into almost every meal. Dr. Brownell director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, argues that these “nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods cost less and are more accessible than more healthful choices.” Nothing exemplifies this more than the number of low-cost high-volume fast-food restaurants located on the Main Streets of every town in America. Dr. Brownell also warns that marketing practices targeted at kids and adults alike encourage overconsumption of calories.  There are plenty of other theories as to why processed foods lead to overeating. For instance, some claim synthetically produced sugars like high fructose corn syrup fail to trigger satiation hormones that tell your brain to stop eating.

Mrs. Obama admits that she didn’t pay too much attention to how food can affect her health until she became a mother. While speaking to David’s class during a White House Garden harvest party she shared what she learned about the benefits of eating healthier foods:

… with the help of our kids’ doctor, I became much more aware of the need for my kids to eat healthy…  I’ve learned that if it’s fresh and grown locally, it’s probably going to taste better…  And that’s how I’ve been able to get my children to try different things, and in particular fruits and vegetables.  By making this small change in our family’s diet and adding more fresh produce for my family, Barack, the girls, me, we all started to notice over a very short period of time that we felt much better and we had more energy.

Now with the help of several Administration agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education and Health, the First Lady is leading an initiative to tackle America’s childhood obesity epidemic by making sure kids are eating healthier and moving more. Dr. Hughes, who is a physician board-certified in internal medicine and earned a Master of Public Health degree at Harvard, said she believes the collaborative efforts to fight childhood obesity will be a hallmark of the Obama Administration.

Ironically, as the waistlines of America’s children continue to expand, statistics show that food-insecure households have reached record numbers. The latest 2008 U.S. food insecurity survey found that 49 million people had difficulty meeting basic food needs. President Obama, who has pledged to end child hunger by 2015, said he was particularly troubled to learn, “that there were more than 500,000 families in which a child experienced hunger multiple times over the course of the year.” Kass claims that too often health and nutrition issues are considered to be unrelated to hunger issues. He argues that, “if we assure that all children have equal access to healthy and affordable foods, we will make great strides in tackling both issues.”

Since government numbers indicate that 60 percent of the nation’s public school students receive the majority of their nutrients at school, a keystone to Mrs. Obama’s healthy kids initiative is efforts to encourage improvements to the National School Lunch Program. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that providing school children with fruits, vegetables and more nutritious food is a priority for the USDA. There are a few encouraging examples of school districts across the country that are making remarkable strides in school lunch reform without significant government assistance. From Baltimore, Maryland to Berkley, California school districts have adopted progressive programs to teach kids where their food comes from and to encourage them to eat healthy foods. Most recently Washington, D.C. Council members introduced a bill that would require public schools to establish a farm-to-school program and to “create a monetary incentive to serve foods that are locally-grown, locally-processed, and minimally-processed from growers engaged in sustainable practices.”

Helping to improve every American’s relationship with food will not be easy. A fact that Dr. Merrigan, who is leading the, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, understands all too well. The initiative’s goal is to build strong local and regional food systems, which includes creating opportunities for farmers to supply local schools with their harvests. Merrigan admitted that moving the initiative forward in a huge government bureaucracy “is really difficult” and confusing to navigate. She says equally difficult is determining how to establish priorities and deciding what to do first.

If Dr. Merrigan were to ask me for my advice, I would suggest a good place to start is opening a dialogue with America’s parents — the people who purchase and monitor the food kids eat every day. Each parent who walks into a supermarket has the right and should expect better access to healthy and affordable whole foods for their kids. Michael Pollan, journalist and author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and most recently “Food Rules” would argue that most of the foods we buy in the grocery store today are not food at all, but rather “edible food substances” designed by food scientists to mimic “real foods.” One of my favorite food rules that Pollan offers in his new book is, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” As savvy American consumers, parents should be able to buy foods that they know are healthy for their children. Price conscious parents on a limited budget shouldn’t be forced to buy foods that are more likely to make their children sick simply because a healthier alternative costs more. Likewise, parents looking for convenient prepackaged or easy to prepare meals, which their kids often find more palatable, shouldn’t have to compromise their child’s health just because a healthier alternative is not available or too expensive.

Parents must also demand more of the schools that provide lunches for their children. Very few schools across the U.S. prepare their students’ meals with fresh ingredients anymore. Instead, they depend on prepackaged meals made up of those tasty but much less healthy processed foods that are chock-full of sugar, fat and salt like chicken nuggets or pizza. And now we’re learning that many of those processed foods may pose greater food safety issues. It was shameful to read in the USA Today that most fast-food chains impose more stringent food safety standards for their processed beef, “than those set by the Agricultural Marketing Service for beef supplied to the National School Lunch Program.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge of increasing demand for healthy foods is ensuring that every American child prefers to eat them and find them just as or even more satisfying than the processed foods that they eat. Sam Kass — speaking with his chef’s hat on — offers his own food rule on that topic. While creating satisfying and tasty meals is important, Kass says, “anybody who cooks for somebody else has the responsibility to safeguard the health and well-being of the people that they are feeding.” I would take it a step further and assert that any company that prepares, serves or advertises food for children is ethically bound to ensure that it is just as healthy as it is palatable. It is also incumbent upon the government to assure that food companies do the right thing for children’s health and make it easier for them to do so.

I believe that if America’s food supply shifts from one that is primarily made of processed foods engineered to encourage overeating to one composed of more balanced healthy and whole foods along with a change in the American appetite that enjoys smaller portions and finds whole foods just as satisfying and tasty, we will then begin to see an end to the childhood obesity epidemic and the chronic diseases associated with it. Dr. Kessler says, “Our greatest gift to future generations of young people would be to find a way to prevent the cue-urge-reward habit cycle from ever taking hold.”

It’s a tall order, but young people like David Martinez-Ruiz continue to give me hope. If his simple experiences with the White House Garden helped him recognize the “gentle” effects of freshly grown foods on his body and on the environment then it is possible to encourage every American child to better appreciate and demand healthy foods.

Originally published on the Livable Future blog

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