Thursday, March 18, 2010

Congress Looks At Child Nutrition

March 18, 2010

The Food Institute reports that child nutrition has been an issue very dear to the Obama administration and earlier this month the House of Representative’s Agriculture Appropriation Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies held an overview hearing regarding the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act with several important witnesses from industry and academia.

Chairwoman Rose DeLauro opened the hearing, commenting that it is chilling to her how many children do not have enough to eat, and there is also a need to be concerned about the nutritional quality of what children are eating. She does not like the characterization of people and children being called “food insecure.” In her view, they are simply hungry. 69% of all children participating in the school lunch program in public schools qualify for free or reduced school lunches. In rural areas, too many households qualifying for federal food assistance programs do not participate in them, including 55% of those eligible for the National School Lunch Program, and 92% of those eligible for the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

She said members of the Subcommittee share the Administration’s two main priorities: reducing barriers and improving access to combat childhood hunger; and enhancing nutritional quality and the health of the school environment.
A number of issues were discussed and there were several key items touched upon, including:

  • USDA expects to publish revised school meal standards based on the Institute of Medicine recommendations by the end of this year, but additional resources will be required since foods meeting the new standards are likely to be more expensive;
  • Improving access to federal child nutrition programs, including through simplification of the application process and direct certification;
  • Increasing the federal reimbursement rate for school meals conditioned upon the additional funds used for improved meals;
  • There are alternative strategies for dealing with obesity that deserve consideration;
  • The nutrition environment has changed over the years and is likely an important factor in current concerns about obesity.

Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at USDA, Kevin Concannon testified that the President’s Administration is concerned about a number of issues and:

  • Wants to bring meals up to the standards recommended by the Institute of Medicine;
  • Wants to provide increases in meal reimbursement rates with increases tied to improving the quality of the meals being served;
  • Establish nutrition standards for competitive foods sold as part of a la carte meals or in vending machines;
  • Establish competitive grants to encourage the consumption of healthier foods;
  • Enhance school food safety capabilities.

Dr. Kelly D. Brownell, Professor of Psychology, Epidemiology and Public Health, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, focused his views on increasing the availability of healthy foods, particularly fresh, and cutting the amount of sugar in foods. He said that the current nutrition environment encourages unhealthy consumption. Food portions are too large, using big drinks and big muffins as examples. Three meals a day is viewed as “not enough.” He urged taking action to create “better default environments.”

He was also critical of food marketing to children, suggesting that there has been “scant progress by industry” in improving the messages provided to children, and would like to see all food advertising banned in schools.

To help in those efforts he Dr. Brownell recommended a one-cent per ounce tax on sugar-containing beverages, with the revenues used for nutrition education programs. He claims that he has received a number of calls from around the country in support of this concept, and that he would not be surprised if various localities adopted this policy recommendation on their own. He believes that the tax would reduce the consumption of sugar-containing beverages from 50 gallons per capita to 38.5 gallons per capita.

Dr. Mariana Chilton – Principal Investigator, GROW Project/Witness to Hunger, Co-Principal Investigator, Children’s Health Watch, Drexel University School of Public Health Children’s Health Watch believes children’s health is turning to the worse. She noted that in Philadelphia, one in three people does not have enough money for food. She expects USDA to issue revised school meal nutrition standards based upon the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine by the end of the year and sees a need to develop a strategy to document the effectiveness of efforts to end childhood hunger by 2015.

Scott Faber – Vice President for Federal Affairs, Grocer Manufacturers Association stated that GMA believes that more resources are needed in the program to enable the purchase of food choices meeting more stringent nutrition sources, and that there should be standards for all foods sold to students in schools. He pointed out that 10,000 product changes have been made in recent years to reduce calories, fats, sugars and sodium.

ZoĆ« Neuberger – Senior Policy Analyst, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
The Center supports the Hunger Free Schools Act, introduced by Congressman David Loebsack of Iowa to provide school-wide eligibility for school meal programs. When schools are in areas of high poverty, it does not make sense to spend money processing applications to find a small number of students as not eligible for a program. The Center believes that if the legislation is adopted 10,000 schools could qualify if 40 percent or more of the school’s students were directly certified as eligible for the program.

Congressman Farr commented that The Child Nutrition Program is #3 in terms of paperwork, with the IRS being number one and said “bureaucratic barriers” are 60% of their costs and asked Under Secretary Concannon What can be done to reduce these barriers who responded that USDA wants to simplify the program, and is using resources Congress provided to increase the use of direct certification.

Congressman Bishop stated that The School Nutrition Program was one of his best experiences growing up. He agrees with Dr. Brownell that changes in lifestyle have contributed to nutrition problems and saluted the American Beverage Association for its cooperation with the First Lady. He is not sure that the idea of the beverage tax suggested by Dr. Brownell is a good idea though.

Chairwomen DeLauro asked if the Grocery Manufacturers support standards for competitive foods? And Mr. Farber responded they will noting that the industry has done several things to improve operations that should be considered, has changed advertising and reformulated products to meet the Dietary Guidelines.

Child nutrition is certain to be discussed much more in future hearings and there will be much more activity in Congress on this front that will affect not only children but the food industry as well.

Be sure to check out the Food Institute at which will be monitoring developments each day in its daily newsletter, Today In Food, and each week The Food Institute Report.