Friday, November 30, 2012

Children in Crisis: Kids & Our Food System

  I've made my feelings on the US Food System fairly clear during my 15 months writing Sabrina's Crossing.

  Unfortunately, the problems go beyond what we are putting on our plates for any one meal. And they go much deeper than any one individual.

  Our system is broken at the core.  

  I recently watched the HBO documentary The Weight of the Nation, a four-part series that explored the obesity 'epidemic' in the US, and came away shaking my head.

  Part 3, "Children in Crisis" (the full video is below), examined the steadily rising obesity rates among America's children.

  The marketing of foods to children, the national school lunch program, and sugary drinks (soda and juices) were the prime focus.

  While I don't have kids myself, I can't help but see that there's a problem. We should not be seeing a country of unhealthy children; struggling with their weight as youngsters, and living an overall unhealthy childhood. As the documentary notes this "will probably be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents."

  Kids should not have to be on diets. They're kids! But with obesity rates tripling in just one generation, and rising chances of developing obesity-related cardio-medabolic disorders and side-effects (Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, etc), it's clear this is not just an isolated problem.

The Happy Meal. Sold by everyone's favorite ogre: Shrek.
  Yes, problems lie on the home front as well. But the blame cannot come down solely on parents. If it was just an individual problem, we would not be seeing rising rates across the board, throughout the country.

  As cliche as it may sound: kids are our future. We should be doing all we can do to protect them, and set them up for successes, instead of allowing them to be exploited. 

  The problem lies in our system. 

How Washington Has Gone Soft
  Instead of making strides in policy in recent years, either by overhauling school lunch programs, regulating what foods are marketed to children, or even a 'soda-tax', the food and beverage industry has won fight after fight at every level of government during the last decade.

  There have been attempts to go healthy, but we've failed thus far.

  In late-2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law by President Obama. The act instructed the USDA to develop higher nutrition standards based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. It was to invest more money than ever before into the school lunch program, and other food programs for children.

Pizza and fries. A common lunch at school.
  The act would immediately increase the quantity of fruits and vegetables served, limit french fries to only be served two times per week, require grains served be whole grain, and reduce saturated fat and sodium in lunches.

  But less than a year later, the bottom fell out. Remember the 'pizza as a vegetable' debacle last November?

  Congress took huge steps backwards with a spending bill that essentially nullified the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. By keeping french fries on the daily menu, allowing pizza to be classified as a vegetable, and delaying the requirement of whole grains, Congress failed our children.

  In 2011, there was an effort to develop one consistent set of nutrition standards regarding food marketing to children. Standards set by experts, not dictated by manufacturers and advertisers. Congress created the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG), which was made up of experts from the CDC, FDA, USDA, and FTC.

A healthier, more well-rounded lunch. What it should look like!
  The IWG was tasked with improving the nutritional profile of children's diets. In July 2011, they proposed principles that would lower the levels of sugar, salt, and fat in the majority of foods marketed to children.

  Once the food industry got wind of the healthier proposals, there was huge push back. A joint hearing was called in October 2011 where there were complaints of policies going too far, and 'declaring war on many healthy products'.

  The food industry won out again. After the hearing, Congress declared that the IWG completely withdraw their recommendations, and 'conduct a study, and report the findings to Congress'. As of March 2012, no further progress has been made on the IWG study.

  In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama's childhood-obesity campaign went from criticizing food makers to only promoting exercise after lobbyists weighed in with their opinions, and more-importantly, their dollars.

Michelle Obama's Let's Move program
  Health experts have compared the tactics of the food industry to those used by Big Tobacco to fight stricter regulations. The most popular argument is to allow the food industry to regulate itself. The companies themselves decide what is, and what is not, healthy food. 

  I've talked about food labeling tactics before. Such as making health claims on sugary cereals. That comes from self-regulation.

  The food industry's interests do NOT lie in protecting children, or our overall health.

  $1.5 billion per year is spent by the food industry marketing food products to children. Young children don't understand what marketing is and how it works. They see a fun cartoon, or their favorite character, and want the related product. Essentially the food industry buys our children.

  For example, the worst cereals nutritionally are the ones that are marketed most-aggressively to children.

  This is not a new discussion. For 30 years, there has been an active debate in Washington over whether or not we should limit advertising to children. 

  In many European countries (you knew I was going there), where obesity and diet-related disease rates are much lower, there are warning labels (France), food and beverage advertising to children bans (Sweden and Norway), and bans on TV ads, including celebrity endorsement, for candy and fast food (Ireland).
                                                                       Who's responsible for getting us back on track?  
What child doesn't want Cookie Crisp for breakfast?
Yes, there is personal choice and personal responsibility. But there is also such a thing as social responsibility. 

  We encountered the same strong push back and roadblocks in regard to smoking, public health and the tobacco industry. But look how regulation and tobacco/smoking is looked upon now. 

  I see our food industry in the same light. And it's just as serious of a problem, if not more-so.

  Here are two small examples of the quality of foods marketed to children: 1) In the breaded chicken and mozzarella Lunchable by Oscar Meyer, there are 80 ingredients listed. Shouldn't it be three: chicken, cheese, and bread? The other 77 ingredients accounts for processed junk.

  And who eats Lunchables -- kids!

  2) In strawberry fruit roll ups, the ingredient list doesn't even include actual strawberries. It's all chemicals, and it's all marketed to kids.

What do we do?
  We need to hold industry leaders and our politicians accountable and demand that the lack of regulation for the food industry be addressed. That we don't allow the big dollars influence school lunches. The health of the younger generation is too important.

  In the past 15 years, the percentage of new cases of Type 2 diabetes (what used to be called adult-onset) among children has from three to 50 percent. Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has tripled.

  What's more, a 2006 USDA report states that the percentage of children who are overweight has doubled and the percentage of adolescents who are overweight has more than triple. This has nothing to do with looks, and everything to do with health.

  Diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease, what previously were 'adult-only' ailments, are now becoming more and more common in children and adolescents. These conditions arise primarily from poor diets and consumption of poor quality foods.

  We need to fix our system. It's more than personal choice and responsibility. Our leaders must get tough on the corporations, and we must tell the food industry enough is enough.

   In the meantime, exercise our right to make healthy choices. Educate ourselves about the food we put on the dinner table (and in the lunch box). We each can do more! 

  If you have the time, which I hope you do, watch "Children in Crisis", the third installment from HBO's The Weight of the Nation. And let me know your thoughts!

Kids Get Hooked Early and Often
How Washington Went Soft on Childhood Obesity
Congress to Kids: Drop Dead
Time to Stop Marketing Food to Kids
Jillian Michaels Podcast 9/15/2012
2006 USDA Report


  1. Amen to all of it! Good job Sabrina on spreading awareness. Makes me just as crazy. Maybe one of these days enough of us will be able to make a difference!