Childhood Obesity Crisis


Alliance Educates Congress
on Childhood Obesity Crisis

The Alliance for Childhood conducted a briefing for Congressional staff on May 9, 2003 on the growing crisis of childhood obesity, at the invitation of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and Tom Harkin of Iowa co-sponsored the event with Senator Landrieu. The featured speaker was Alliance partner Dr. David Ludwig, director of the childhood obesity clinic at Children's Hospital in Boston.

Childhood obesity has expanded to epidemic levels, with severe physical, emotional, and social complications for millions of children and their families. One-third of U.S. children are now overweight or obese, a three-fold increase since the 1960s. The health risks directly associated with obesity in children include early onset of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, leading to amputations, blindness, and early death.

The causes of this looming health disaster are complex and varied. There is no one simple reason. While much recent research has focused on finding a genetic basis for obesity, it is clear that our genes have not changed dramatically in 30 years. What has changed is the way we nurture—or fail to nurture—our children. The childhood obesity epidemic is a direct result of these interconnected trends in children's lives:

  • The severed relationship between children, nature, and nature's bounty of nutritious foods—especially fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, and whole grains—and the corresponding takeover of children's diets by low-quality fast foods and sugar-sweetened drinks.
  • The demise of active play and physical exercise in children's lives, both at school and at home.
  • The disappearance of family mealtimes as a ritual for preparing and enjoying good food.
  • The growing number of sedentary hours children spend in front of televisions, computers, and screens of all kinds—and the natural tendency to snack mindlessly during those hours.
  • The onslaught of advertisements directly aimed at children, pushing junk foods high in empty calories and added sugar.
  • The general absence of fresh fruits and vegetables and healthful snacks, and of effective nutrition education, in schools.

Across the country, however, individual communities are demonstrating how school-based programs can contribute to the solution by creating a healthy culture of food. Innovative programs—such as Vermont's Food Education Every Day (FEED) and the University of Pennsylvania's Urban Nutrition Initiative—are providing hands-on education about the relationship between nature, the garden, farm, and table; the celebration of mealtime as a rich social experience; and the health-giving and pleasure-filled experience of eating nutritious fresh foods that are well prepared and attractively presented.

This year's USDA pilot project providing fresh fruits and vegetables as healthy school snacks has been a big hit in the few states where it was implemented. Other healthy alternatives in school-based programs include school gardens, the farm-to-school movement that links local farmers with local schools, cooking classes, and chef mentors who are training school chefs to rely less on canned foods and menus high in saturated fats, corn syrup, and sugar and more on appetizing recipes that feature a wider variety of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Some communities are also mobilizing to move commercial vending machines off school grounds, or to restock them with healthier snack options. Ultimately, however, it's important to recognize that the proliferation of ads aimed at children that push unhealthy food choices teach powerful lessons that promote both obesity and poor nutrition.

This year's budget climate is unusually tight. But the long-term costs of ignoring the childhood obesity danger will dwarf any short-term savings from such a policy. School meals represent a major part of the diet of school-aged children, especially poor children. The Alliance urges Congress to fully fund all of the child nutrition programs in the pending reauthorization, to broaden eligibility guidelines, and to reduce paperwork to serve as many children and families in need as possible. In addition, we urge Congress to adopt the following priorities:

  • Emphasize fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains throughout the school meals and other nutrition programs as foods that are naturally rich in the nutrients that children need for a healthy diet;
  • Expand to all 50 states the USDA pilot project that provides fresh fruit and vegetable snacks;
  • Provide financial incentives to schools that eliminate vending machines or that require vendors to stock only healthy choices in machines or a-la-carte lines;
  • Authorize a new initiative to fund demonstration projects in all 50 states aimed at creating a healthy culture of food through school and community programs that enhance children's interest in healthful foods, such as school and youth gardens, hands-on cooking classes, and chef mentors. Also, support farm-to-school programs;
  • Hold hearings to explore options for eliminating commercial advertisements for unhealthy food choices aimed at children.

Presenters at the May 9 briefing included Joan Almon, coordinator, U.S. Alliance for Childhood; Alliance partner David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director, Obesity Program, Children's Hospital, Boston, and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School; Alliance partner Edward Miller, former editor of the Harvard Education Letter; Danny Gerber, co-director of the Urban Nutrition Initiative (UNI) in West Philadelphia, part of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Community Partnerships, and Antwin Clark, senior at University City High School and UNI participant; and Alison Forrest, chef/mentor of Vermont FEED.