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House Appropriations Subcommittee Hears Testimony on Childhood Obesity

On March 12, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture held a hearing on domestic nutrition programs.

Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said, “For decades our nation’s nutrition programs under the Department of Agriculture have been a big part of our social safety net—providing children and low-income families with access to quality food…The fact is, one in five Americans is affected by nutrition programs under the Food and Nutrition Service at USDA [United States Department of Agriculture]. So we have to ask, are we using the USDA as a positive force for change? Are we doing families and children good, or are we contributing to their poor nutrition and obesity and other health problems. Do we understand the full consequences of our choices not only from specific programs like WIC [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Programs for Women, Infants, and Children] or the School Lunch Program, but also when it comes to our far-reaching subsidy policy?”

She continued, “From WIC to SNAP [Special Nutrition Assistance Program, known colloquially as food stamps] to the School Lunch Program, there are so many powerful tools, and we have used them to achieve a lot of good over the years. But we have lacked the coordination and long-term vision to take full advantage of their potential. Our question going forward is how to get all of these programs working together, effectively and in the same direction? How do we harness their reach and impact, and apply it to a larger, more comprehensive campaign to strengthen healthy diets, healthy weights, and active lifestyles. The [FY2010] Agriculture Appropriations bill and the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization [P.L. 108-265] will be important next steps.”

Thomas O’Connor, acting deputy undersecretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNS) at the USDA, focused his remarks on the rise of childhood obesity and overweight: “[A]lmost one in five children and adolescents are overweight. In the past 20 years, the percentage of children who are overweight has doubled and the percentage of adolescents who are overweight has more than tripled. I’m sure that these figures are not new to you, and I can assure you that they have been matters of serious concern—and action—by USDA for many years.” Mr. O’Connor discussed the successes of federal nutrition programs, including increasing the percentage of low-income families who meet the recommended daily allowances for “seven key nutrients essential to good health,” reducing hunger, and improving the nutrition of school breakfasts and lunches. Mr. O’Connor noted that the USDA has made a major investment in nutrition education and that the department is “not aware of any convincing evidence that school meals or other federal nutrition assistance programs cause obesity and overweight; the evidence that does exist is mixed.”

Mr. O’Connor noted several examples of USDA’s outreach: “In 2007, FNS released Loving Your Family, Feeding Their Future, a comprehensive nutrition education intervention in English and Spanish to reach low-income mothers, to motivate them to improve their families’ eating and physical activity behaviors…We are implementing significant changes in the WIC food packages to help WIC more actively address today’s greatest nutrition risks and concerns. The changes, based on recommendations from a panel of experts convened at our request by the Institute of Medicine, includes the addition of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and stronger support for breastfeeding. Breastfed babies are less likely to become overweight as they grow, and mothers who breastfeed may return to pre-pregnancy weight more easily.” However, in closing Mr. O’Connor said, “The nutrition assistance programs cannot offer the sole, comprehensive solution to this complex social problem, which affects people of every age, income level, and background. But the strategies we have in place can make—are making—a real difference in the lives of the children and low-income people we serve. I am confident that the new administration intends to carry forward the commitment to stem the tide of overweight and obesity as a critical step towards a healthier future.”

Kelly Brownell, professor at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, and Lynn Parker, director of the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine, also testified.

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