HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Calories v. Nutrition

Fruit The Washington Post reports on the new direction food assistance programs may take under the Obama administration.  The article states,

The worsening economic crunch is causing the tab for food assistance programs to balloon, and with the rising costs has come an intensifying debate over whether -- and how -- the U.S. government can tackle simultaneously the paradoxically linked problems of hunger and obesity.

The statistics spell out the dilemma. The number of Americans on food stamps topped 31.5 million in September, a record high. Obesity, too, is at epidemic levels: In 30 states, at least 25 percent of the population is dangerously overweight. Nationally, 31.9 percent of children are considered overweight or obese.

For decades, the government has treated hunger and obesity as unrelated phenomena. But at a news conference last week in Chicago, Tom Vilsack, President-elect Barack Obama's choice for agriculture secretary, said he would put "nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs," a signal that he will get involved next year when Congress moves to reauthorize nutrition programs that support school breakfasts and lunches as well as summer food for children.  "For a long time, we've looked at hunger and obesity separately," said  Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the committee that will draft the legislation. "It's not a zero-sum game."

Public health advocates have long hoped to link food assistance to good nutrition. To the anti-hunger lobby, however, mandating what kind of food needy people should eat is impractical and smacks of paternalism. It would be impossible, they say, to determine which of the 50,000-plus products in the grocery store should be classified as healthful. . . .

But with hunger and obesity reaching unprecedented levels, some anti-hunger activists are beginning to soften their stance. According to a report by the Partnership for America's Economic Success, toddlers whose families have gone hungry are three to four times as likely to be obese. If the current recession resembles past downturns, the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts, the number of Americans in poverty could rise by as many as 10 million, driving up obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. . . .

With the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants and Children Act set to be reauthorized next year, public health advocates are lobbying for the implementation of stricter standards for school breakfast and lunch programs, based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academies.

Nutrition standards for school meals were not established until 1994, and public health advocates say the standards have failed to keep pace with scientific research. Even so, as few as 15 percent of elementary schools and 13 percent of secondary schools met the recommended standards for saturated fat in the 2004-05 school year, according to an Agriculture Department study. One percent of schools met the recommended guidelines for limiting sodium. Advocates also are clamoring for funds to improve nutrition education.

"Research is clear -- handing out nutrition brochures does not work," Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said in testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee this month. She called for more education for parents about how to prepare healthful meals as well as closer links between school, after-school and parental programs to reinforce nutrition education.  "In the current economic downturn, the role of the child nutrition programs becomes even more critical as an essential part of the nutrition safety net," Kennedy said.

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