Op-Ed: Competitive Foods and Child Obesity

In the past few months we’ve heard much about a slowing economy and the rising cost of living. One of the biggest drivers is the ever-increasing cost of health care. Americans want action on controlling out-of-control medical care costs—for prescription drugs, to doctor’s visits, to hospital visits. They want to know that their own financial futures are not put at risk by these rising prices, and they want to know that their children’s future is not jeopardized by the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid.

We all know that one of the ways to control medical care costs is through prevention. Where do we start? By living healthy lifestyles, eating right, and getting regular exercise. Nothing new. Nothing fancy. Basic stuff.

But we’re not listening. New data shows that we’re spending $174 billion a year treating diabetes alone – more than combat in Afghanistan and Iraq and the global war on terror combined. And there are one million new cases a year. What is one of the major risk factors for diabetes? Being overweight or obese. And yet, of all the babies born in 2000, one in three will become overweight.

At school, our children learn in health class to eat five fruits or vegetables a day, but when they go to lunch they are able to buy soda, potato chips, and a candy bar. A study recently concluded in Sweden found that schools that banned sweets, donuts, and soft drinks saw the number of overweight children drop by six percentage points in just four years.

When are we going to wake up?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been regulating the nutrition of foods sold in school cafeterias since the 1960s. The USDA has also been regulating the nutrition of vending machine and school store foods and beverages—the so called “competitive foods” for almost as long, but you could drive a semi truck full of Doritos through those regulations. Despite major changes in nutritional science, regulations defining nutritional standards for school vending machines have not been updated since 1979. I have staff who are younger than that!

USDA regulations for foods and beverages sold in school vending machines, school stores and elsewhere in our nation’s schools do not limit the dangers of trans fats, high sodium, sugar, cholesterol, or large portion sizes. Congress has an obligation to update these standards and ensure that our children have healthy food options readily available in schools.

The United States is experiencing a youth obesity epidemic and obese children tend to become obese adults. The major risk factors for heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes—unhealthy eating habits, physical inactivity, and obesity—often are established in childhood. The chance that a child born in 2000 will develop diabetes during his or her lifetime is 39% for girls and 33% for boys. Is updating the standards for competitive foods the entire answer? Of course not. But it is an important piece.

Senator Tom Harkin and I are working to update the standard for competitive foods. We’ve introduced the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, which would require the Secretary of Agriculture to update the standards based on the recommendations from scientific and nutritional experts. Senator Harkin has also led the effort to negotiate an agreement to set such standards, which has gained the support of a wide variety of food and beverage manufacturers, health, education, and parent groups. I have given this agreement my complete support.

It makes no sense for the federal government to allow high-fat, high sugar, high sodium foods in schools and then pay for the costs incurred from obesity-related heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It makes no sense to teach kids about the benefits of fruit and vegetables, regulate their cafeteria food, and then let them buy candy bars and soda pop in school.

Kids listen not to what we say, but to what we do. I urge all of my colleagues to find out more about the negotiated agreement, sign on, and let’s get serious about our health.

By:  Senator Murkowski