obesity part II




Are we killing our children?
The Childhood Obesity Epidemic in America: Part I
by Antoinette Bruno and Amy Tarr

Obesity is on the rise among the American population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 64 percent of adults in America are obese or overweight. As if it is not enough that the problem is rampant among adults, we are condemning our children to a future of morbid obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other medical conditions. A study published this past June showed that 40 percent of Arkansas public-school students from kindergarten through high school were overweight or at risk of becoming too heavy. And, according to a study published in the September 2004 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, more than 40 percent of New York City public-school students are overweight, and nearly one quarter are obese. Childhood obesity is a national issue, affecting children in rural, suburban, and inner-city communities. With as much as half of a child’s weekly meals provided by schools today, an overhaul of the national school nutrition program is a good place to start addressing the problem - and long overdue.

Over the past thirty years, the nutritional makeup of processed food in America has changed as a result of numerous economic, political and social factors. Efforts to bring down the cost of food in the early to mid ‘70s led to huge corn surpluses among American farmers, resulting in the creation of new food products and the development of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), an inexpensive sweetener. As US foreign trade policy loosened, palm oil imported from Malaysia was touted by American manufacturers as a stable, tasty and economical fat that could extend the shelf life of baked goods, regardless of its high saturated fat content. High fructose corn syrup found its way into Coke and Pepsi, as well as frozen foods and boxed macaroni and cheese. And palm oil became McDonald’s preferred oil for cooking French fries. The availability of cheap and easy food appealed to the changing American family in which either both parents worked or only one parent was raising the family.

The biggest factor affecting schools’ cafeteria offerings is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's commodities program, which supplies large quantities of ingredients at bargain prices to schools across the country. The commodities program allows agribusiness to make money from surplus products that are not necessarily in the best health interest of children. The National School Lunch Program, which began serving meals in 1946, today impacts more than 28 million students a day. Schools get a major portion of food from the commodities program. Every year, the USDA buys hundreds of millions of pounds of excess meat and animal products to boost falling prices. These high-fat, high-cholesterol products are then distributed at low cost to school dining programs. Despite the general awareness that a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables helps prevent obesity, heart disease and cancer, in 2001, the USDA spent $350 million on high-fat beef and cheese for schools while it spent $161 million on fruits and vegetables. The commodities program may be supporting the agricultural community, but our kids are paying the price.[1]

“We are commodifying foods that we don’t really need, and all the leftover food goes into school lunch. Propping up agriculture has nothing to do with safe, whole foods,” says Ann Cooper, former Executive Chef and Director of Wellness and Nutrition of The Ross School in East Hampton, New York. “We need to take school nutrition out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and put it into Health and Human Services, where it belongs.”

Major cutbacks in state public school funding, the result of caps on property taxes in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, have also contributed to unhealthy school lunch programs. The cafeterias of some of the most overcrowded schools have resorted to outsourcing meals and reheating them before serving them to students, ceding control of the nutritional content of those meals. The same cutbacks have drastically reduced physical education programs in public schools throughout the country. It may seem obvious that an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, where TV and video games are the leisure activities of choice, contributes significantly to the overweight and obesity problem, but the knowledge gap about the health benefits of exercise continues to grow.[2]

Not to be forgotten are the fast food chains, with their marketing campaigns targeting young children and teenagers. Since the ‘90s, fast food chains, led by Pizza Hut, have infiltrated school campuses, selling their branded products outside of the federally regulated cafeteria, by setting up carts on the lawn or snack bars inside the school. By 1999, 95% of 345 California high schools surveyed were offering branded fast foods for lunch. The soft drink industry has also tapped into schools as a market for their products, offering “pouring contracts.” For agreeing to exclusively sell, Coke, for example, schools can receive commissions and a yearly bonus – sometimes as much as $100,000.[3]

While the curriculum in schools may include nutrition lessons on balanced, healthy eating habits, those lessons are being negated by the practices of school cafeterias, and even further negated by parents at home. Many children aren’t getting any guidance from parents because adults lack awareness about healthy eating habits themselves. And in an era where parents spend so little time with their children, it’s easier for them to bring their kids to a fast food restaurant rather than cook a healthy, balanced meal and have to argue with the kids to get them to eat it.

Unfortunately research shows that overweight and obesity is a socioeconomic issue. People of lower incomes rely more heavily on cheap fast food and have limited resources for their children to participate in safe, healthy exercise activities. Struggling parents also rely on free breakfast and lunch programs to feed their children in the summer months. Activists like Alice Waters refuse to look at this health problem from a paradigm of poverty, believing that all children are deserving of fresh, healthy, and good-tasting food. “There’s not a single good thing to eat in the whole school. The fact is it simply costs more to serve real food,” she says. Waters also expresses concerns that children in America lack any awareness of where their food comes from. Nor do many kids know how to dine properly using a knife and fork, while participating in intelligent conversation with their peers. “We’re simultaneously killing our kids, our environment and our culture.”

Waters’ comment is not an exaggeration - death is the ultimate result of obesity. Risk of death increases by 2% for each pound of excess weight for people ages 50 to 62 and 1% per excess pound for ages 30-49.[4] The more overweight our children are, the more likely they will develop illnesses and die young.

Fixing the public school cafeteria program is going to cost money. But isn’t it better to spend money on healthy and safe food for our kids, instead of spending the money on fixing the problems associated with an overweight and obese population? Research by MetLife, the CDC, and the American College of Cardiology indicates that the three key conditions linked to obesity — diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease — cost employers more than $220 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity.[5] What if that money had gone to funding school lunch programs and developing nutrition curriculum?

Alice Waters wants to take it a step further, advocating to make lunch an academic subject, where food is integrated into the curriculum. Her vision for the future may at first seem bold, but it makes sense. “Take lunch out of maintenance and put in it in academia. Teach [children] all of the instruments of ecology and relation to culture. Develop curriculum that integrates food into all of the academic subjects. They get credit for being in the kitchen and for taking nutrition. It becomes something that has legitimacy. Every kid needs to learn how to cook for himself, needs to learn how to cultivate a garden, plant seeds, learn about sustainability, be taken to a garden, be able to put his hands in the earth. Because they’re so disconnected.”

The eating habits that we instill in our children now will carry over into their adult lives. If we repeatedly expose our kids to high-fat, high-sugar foods, our children will develop an affinity for those kinds of foods, and be susceptible to becoming overweight or obese in their adulthood. But if we teach our children to eat healthy, delicious, balanced foods, we can create positive eating habits and a healthier adult population in America.

Vocal individuals like Alice Waters and Ann Cooper are being heard, but they aren’t being taken seriously enough. It’s time for all of the stakeholders - the foodservice industry, school administrators, parents and teachers, hospitals, insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and the government - to step up to the plate and accept some of the financial and social responsibility for this overwhelming issue. As adults, we are responsible for the food choices we make for ourselves, but our children, the most vulnerable members of our society, cannot choose. And so it is our duty to make healthy food choices for them.

This is the first article in a series of features on the obesity epidemic. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks on StarChefs.com

Click here to share your thoughts on the childhood obesity epidemic.

1 Lanou, Amy Joy, and Sullivan, Patrick, “School Lunches a Dumping Ground for Agribusiness,” www.reclaimingdemocracy.org. (First published by www.TomPaine.com, 2003.)
2 Critser, Greg, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p 71.
3 Ibid., pp 47-48.
4 Ibid., p 99.
5 Leopold, Ronald, MD, MBA, MPH, “Reining in the Rising Cost of Obesity,” Business and Health, August 2004:22.

Additional Resources:

American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Dietary Guidance for Healthy Children Ages 2 to 11 Years,”
Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2004.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Physical Activity and Good Nutrition: Essential Elements to Prevent Chronic Diseases and Obesity,” 2004.

US Department of Health and Human Services, “Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity,” 2001.



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Published: September 2004