Government Policy and the Effects on Childhood Obesity

The prevalence of obesity in the United States has seen a significant spike in numbers within recent years, specifically regarding the wellbeing of children. With regards to this realization, the Government has chosen to place a heavy emphasis on children’s nutritional guidelines. Professionals in the both the political and health fields, as well as concerned parents, have all conveyed a strong sense of worry and want to see a change. In response, a number of educational policies have been enacted as a way to specifically target children’s diet in attempt to reduce obesity rates and promote a healthier generation. However, are policies enough change a child’s chosen lifestyle?

To be more specific, the obesity epidemic has been going on for nearly 30 years, however, the United States has seen a recent and substantial increase in the amount of action being taken in order to address this issue. According to Brownback (2008), within the last 30 years, the rate of overweight and obese children has increased by approximately 300 percent and the lifetime expectancy for younger generations is expected to see a decrease by up to five years. Clearly, there is not a single leading cause to explain the growing rate of obesity however, there have been a number of different policies put into place in order to take a step closer to ending the growing epidemic. In fact, within the last five years the United States has experienced a sequence of reforms specifically concerning obesity prevention, many occurring within elementary, middle and high schools across the country (Mantel 2010).

One of the first major stances taken to address obesity includes the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. When Michelle Obama became the First Lady she developed this program and the USDA later enacted it during the year 2010 (Frieden, 2010). The goal for this program was to help the United States to grow a healthier generation of children. This was done through the creation of standards specifically aimed to realign school meals with the latest nutritional science and real world circumstances in schools throughout the United States. These responsible reforms were set up in a way that was right for children’s health and also achievable for all schools across the nation. To put the need for this into perspective, Michelle Obama’s program allowed for school nutrition to be altered for the first time in nearly 15 years (Kiener, 2014).

In 2008, before the existence of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and school systems were in desperate need of a change. To back up this concern regarding the content of school lunches, a committee formed by the Institute of Medicine set out and inspected school cafeterias across the United States. The IOM is an American non-profit organization whose goal is to serve as a tool to help the government and private sectors make educated health decisions (Brownback, 2008). Each year, more than 3,000 individuals spend time volunteering their time, knowledge, and expertise to help in discovering a solution to the nation’s health epidemics through the work of the IOM. In this scenario, a group set out to gather data concerning the content of school lunches and how it relates to the discussed obesity epidemic. After partnering with experienced librarians at the George E Brown Jr. Library of the National Academies, school lunchrooms across the country were inspected as well as analyzed through scholarly articles in order to comprehensively grasp the feasibility of the current school nutrition standards.

The data collected described the typical meal that is served in a school cafeteria setting to consist of an extremely limited variety of fresh fruits and vegetables paired with a high volume of refined grains. When comparing their findings to the diet of the general population, the results correlated with a diet that failed to promote a healthy lifestyle. As stated earlier, in 2008 the USDA guidelines being followed by schools at the time were based off of standards that were put in place in 1995 (Merlo, 2014). These results raised a red flag for many states that at the time were only under the USDA’s regulation and failed to make the cut when it came to providing students meals that support a nutritious lifestyle. The results of this study conclude that even when a school lunch does offer nutritious options for students, the underlying reasoning for eating a healthy diet are through individual, household, and environmental factors. In other words, when students are given the freedom to choose what they want to eat at school, it all goes back to the individual’s lifestyle rather than health, especially when pertaining to children. (Mero 2014)

After a thoroughly analyzation of the long-term problems that are attached to the increasing rate of childhood obesity and the findings from the Institute of Medicine, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was then enacted by Congress as a way of taking immediate action. This new policy called for a massive revision of school lunch standards and put into place an updated set of guidelines for school cafeterias to follow. The new standards directly correlated with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which focused on maximizing the nutritional value of a meal and maintaining a caloric intake level that supports a healthy weight (Hinman, 2011). The guidelines also provide individuals with the information needed to maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health. This successfully mapped out how school systems could be utilized to mirror what a healthy lifestyle should consist by providing students with nutritious meals. However, two years after the program was launched it became weakened by a number of different unpredicted factors.

The failure goes all the way back to the decision by Congress to update the school lunch guidelines. Despite the good intentions of Congress, which focused on creating healthier lunch options that would ultimately reduce the number of overweight and obese children throughout the United States, the outcomes were not in compliance with expectations. While Congress was successful in implementing the appropriate standards that were set up to provide students with healthier meal choices, they were not prepared for the reactions received from students. Across all of the schools that implemented this program, a common issue was the increased amount of plate waste compared to the amount being thrown away prior to the policy change (Mantel, 2010). This distinctly expresses that the new set of modifications were not accepted among the student body across the country.

In response, the U.S House of Representatives released the following request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture following the heavily increased level of waste: “The Committee directs the Department to conduct a study of plate waste in the school nutrition programs and the factors associated with it, including “offer vs. serve” in both elementary and secondary schools, scheduling of lunch hours (are they too short, are there competing activities that interfere with lunch time e.g. recreation time after a meal versus before a meal), quality and condition of food.” (Merlo, 2014). The statement expressed concern not only for external factors associated with the increase but also for factors that pertain directly to the content of what cafeterias are serving. Both have great potential to affect the amount of waste however the change in content and quality of food revealed to be the main element that drove up the amount of waste.

After conducting a nationwide School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, the results were able to clearly define several key factors that help to explain the reasoning for waste however, many failed to address the sudden increase. However, the study was able to discover valuable findings that compare the amount of energy (calories) making up a student’s lunch to the amount of food actually consumed during a student’s designated lunchtime. The amount of energy wasted per plate varied from 10 to 37 percent (Kiener, 2014).This is due to several variables that were taken into account during the study with gender and age differences being the two major contributing factors. The findings concluded that girls tend to waste more food and nutrients as opposed to boys however, regardless of gender, younger students were reported throw away a higher proportion of food compared to older students.

Another statistic from the same study analyzed how the amount of plate waste varies by food type and nutrient type. The foods that were observed to be wasted the most included salad, fruit, and vegetables which all have a high concentration of vitamins such as folate. The concept of offer vs. serve mentions in the statement released by the House of Representatives is designed to encourage students to choose foods that they prefer rather than everything that is available. Or in other words, students should avoid getting food that they know will not be consumed. However, even after a significant amount of time to become familiar with the menu adjustment the amount of waste being produced still remained at a substantially higher level as opposed to before the switch. Along with the rejection of the new food, a large percentage of students chose to withdraw from even purchasing a lunch and as a result schools struggled to meet certain dietary requirements due to high costs and low budgets (Frieden, 2010).

After failed implementation of the school lunch regulations, the House of Representatives had to make the difficult decision of offering a waiver that allowed schools who had experienced six months or more of a net loss in revenue to opt out of the requirements for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Although this outcome would likely predict that school would go back to offering their old menu options, some schools took a much different approach. Although all states are required to follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements, 19 states chose to pass additional and separate sets of nutritional standards (Mantel, 2010). This data is due to the results of a nationwide survey conducted in elementary schools during 2007 and 2008. As mentioned in by Cawley (2006), industries have become so reliant of substituting quality for a lower price that the idea of replacing cheaper priced goods is almost impossible to visualize. This a primary reason for the failure to meet the dietary requirements. Since the price of real food has fallen making foods high in fat and sugar cheaper for schools as well as consumers to purchase while another element involves innovation through technology, which is referring to the abundance of pre-packaged foods that are now readily available to for the service industry (Cummins).

As we continue to look at the idea of a school cafeteria from a business standpoint, there are obvious assumptions that favor cost over the well-being of the students, especially in public schools. School systems are generally working with a tight budget, which in the long run causes prioritization to come into play when masking decisions. When other factors such as classroom technology and sports come into play, there is little reason as to why schools would choose to invest in a higher standard of food if what they are already serving “gets the job done” (Hinman, 2011).

After seeing the rejection of the new food standards could it be that the problem is now a matter of choice rather than accessibility? Consumers are faced with making choices on a daily basis whether they realize it or not and often times these decisions require choosing between healthy and unhealthy foods. What would you like to drink? White or brown rice? Would you like to upsize your order? All of these questions inflict the factor of choice and when it comes down to making a decision, a consumer is going to do what they want regardless of the options available. The process of altering the food served in cafeterias that has previously been discussed exemplifies a logical solution however, the government can only regulate to a certain degree.

It is clear that developing a solution to the obesity will take much more than simply modifying the standards within school cafeterias. However, the situation happening within schools brings up a unique parallel to food desserts. The USDA defines a food desert as an area vapid of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods that are usually found in impoverished areas due to the lack of full service grocery stores and farmers markets within reach (Mead, 2008). People living in food deserts rely heavily on neighboring convenience stores that typically sell items that are highly processed as well as high in sugar and fat which are known contributors to the Unites States’ current obesity epidemic. Within the past few decades a type of environment has become increasingly more prevalent throughout the United States and serves as a direct comparison to what is occurring in school cafeterias (Mead, 2008).

A study done by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and the U.S Department of Agriculture analyzes food deserts and attempts to re-evaluate the hypothesis of whether or not the proximity of healthy grocery and dining options has an effect on what people within that proximity consume. The study began by developing scorecards that analyze the quality of an array of household’s food purchases scored on the basis of that FDA’s recommendation for fats, sodium, and cholesterol levels. Once that information was collected, the income and education level of each participant was compared to the nutritional value of his or her groceries. However, the results disagree with the common belief that if healthier options were placed in food deserts that the number of households living off of a nutritionally poor diet would decrease (Cummins, 2002).

Molly Schnell, the researcher from Princeton states that giving access to healthier food choices will only solve for 10% of the disparities found in the discussed study. Her own findings conclude that households do not have a strong response to new grocery entrants to the geographic area. However, when households do chose to buy groceries from a new and wholesome location, the nutritional value of their purchases doesn’t entail a lasting nutritious change. Households will typically start out taking advantage of the nutritious options available but still remain highly prone to falling back into their regular purchasing habits. These results directly contradict the Agricultural Act of 2014. This program has committed to investing $125 million dollars per year for five years as a way to incorporate healthy options into areas that do not already have access (Kiener, 2014). When comparing this strategy to the results from the study, a large sum of $625 million dollars is essentially being allocated to a project that has a highly unlikely chance of closing the nutrition gap found in food deserts.

With that being said, the actions of how people living in food deserts react to the new full service grocery stores entering the market is it applicable to the study with the government’s attempt to regulate school nutrition. The new regulations within schools follow very closely with the intentions of the Agricultural Act. The two compare in that both situations are placing healthy options within reach in attempt to solve the problem of unhealthy Americans. Based on the previous study, residents in food deserts aren’t rejoicing over the availability of fresh and healthy options just like the students aren’t accepting the new cafeteria menu options. Relying solely on the change in lunch room menu options to predict a healthier student body doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going be inclined to accept the change just as incorporating full service grocery stores into food desserts doesn’t mean those within proximity will change their eating habits.

Obviously obesity is highly prevalent throughout the United States and has been clearly acknowledged through a multitude of approaches taken to further prevent this epidemic. Not only has there been a lot of emphasis placed on healthy eating habits like the Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 that attempt to engage kids specifically in a healthy lifestyle in school but there is also a lot of emphasis put on fitness campaigns such as “Lets Move!”. The question now after years of trial and error, what kind of approach will produce the desired results of a reduced number of children suffering from obesity? Although there is no direct answer. Choice seems to be the underlying factor that has the ability to change the way Americans chose to eat. Instead of developing policies that force change, the government should consider taking an educational route. By educating rather than forcing, children will knowledgeable about what they are consuming and have the ability to use that knowledge for the rest of their life therefore changing the direction that obesity is headed towards.

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