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Childhood Obesity Subject of House Subcommittee Hearing

On May 14, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities held a hearing, “Improving Child Nutrition Programs to Reduce Childhood Obesity.”

In her opening statement, Chair Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) said, “Childhood obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are all on the rise in the U.S. and one of the best tools we have to combat these illnesses is our ability to provide wholesome and healthy nutrition to children in school…Low-income communities tend to have the highest obesity rates due to factors such as a lack of access to affordable, healthy foods, lack of safe, available venues for physical activity, and a lack of education about nutrition and its benefits. Furthermore, it has been found that minority children are at the greatest risk for obesity…There is no silver bullet to solve childhood obesity. However, the School Breakfast and Lunch programs can make a great impact because they may provide more than 50 percent of a student’s food and nutrient intake on school days. The decisions we make during reauthorization are very important to a great number of children, and that is why we have assembled such a knowledgeable panel.”

Ranking Member Todd Platts (R-PA) said, “The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that more than 72 million adults, or over one-third of the United States population, are obese. In addition, 17 percent of children ages two [through] 19 are considered overweight…There are a variety of parties that are responsible for helping address the issue of childhood obesity. Here at the federal level, we administer the school breakfast and lunch programs, and therefore have a responsibility to ensure that foods provided by these programs are nutritional and healthy. Local school districts also play a role as they make decisions about the activities that take place on their campus. I believe, however, that parents have the most important role as the primary caretakers of their child’s well-being to ensure that their children remain active and consume nutritious meals.”

During the first panel, Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) discussed local comprehensive wellness policies, including “nutrition guidelines, nutrition education, physical activity goals, and school-based wellness activities developed by school districts in an effort to accommodate a variety of demographics, economic situations, and local food preferences. The objectives of these plans are to change students’ eating habits while simultaneously encouraging increased activity…As Congress works to reauthorize child nutrition legislation this year to strengthen school nutrition programs, it is clear we must work with state and local school districts to further address the important and complex issue of childhood obesity by supporting programs under current law that promote nutrition education and physical activity at the state and local level; implementing programs with proven results in improving health outcomes; and targeting those children who are at the greatest risk.”

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) focused her remarks on H.R. 1324, the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act. The measure would “ensure that all foods sold in schools during the entire school day are based on current, scientific, and sound nutrition standards…H.R. 1324 would require that nutrition standards for foods sold in vending machines and a la carte lines meet standards for caloric intake, saturated fats, trans fats, and refined sugars. The bill would depend on leading scientific experts to make recommendations, and would study the relationship between certain foods and obesity. Additionally, while H.R. 1324 would set strong nationwide minimum standards, states could go above and beyond those standards. It’s obviously long past time to bring these school food standards into the 21st century. Unless Congress updates these standards, students will continue to spend money on unhealthy options that undermine their health and their futures.”

In the second panel, Virginia Stallings, director of the Nutrition Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chair of the Committee on Nutrition Standards for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs at the Institute of Medicine (IOM’s) outlinedthe findings from the IOM’s 2008 report on school breakfast and lunch programs. First, she stated that the Food and Drug Administration does not define the term “whole grain,” so any reauthorization must clarify this meaning to ensure that school districts are following the law. Second, the committee must recognize the challenges of finding low-sodium “prepared foods that the children will find ‘appetizing.’” Third, the committee should plan for the five-year update of the dietary guidelines, scheduled to take place in 2010. Fourth, “the current nutrition standards for school meals reference the older 1989 recommended dietary allowances…These have been replaced and expanded by the Institute of Medicine’s new reference values known as the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) developed between 1994 and 2004. Fifth, the committee should specify nutrient and energy minimums and maximums by age group; and sixth, specify the nutrients to be covered, not just the total fat, sodium, and a few vitamins and minerals.

Lorrene Ritchie, director of the Atkins Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, testified about the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Ms. Ritchie made five recommendations to “strengthen WIC’s impact” on childhood nutrition and to reduce childhood obesity. She urged the committee to increase the amount of nutrition education for WIC beneficiaries, saying “Optimal nutrition education requires sufficient time at WIC appointments to talk with WIC families about their nutrition-related concerns and assist them with overcoming the many barriers to healthy choices.” Dr. Ritchie recommended that WIC focus on increasing breastfeeding rates, saying that it is “a low-cost way to promote health in children it reduces infectious disease and chronic disease, as well as reduces risk of obesity.” She also recommended better coordination of federal nutrition programs; that is, a unified message of healthy eating across all food programs, including WIC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). Her final recommendation was that WIC discontinue the required screenings for iron-deficiency anemia, saying that the programs are better spent on obesity prevention, a much more widespread issue.

Michele Patterson, the first lady of New York; Susan P. Byrnes, founder of the Susan. P. Byrnes Health Education Center;Reginald Felton, director of federal relations at the National School Boards Association; and Nancy Copperman, director of the Public Health Initiatives’ Office of Community Health North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, also testified.

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