by Haley Swartz
In advance of the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, public dialogue and political action must shift to emphasize exercise and physical education courses, in addition to a balanced, nutritionally rich diet.
Congress amends the CNA every five years to reflect new research on public health trends and refocus the goals of the National School Lunch Program. Preceding the most recent CNA reauthorization, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move!initiative to end childhood obesity in February 2010. This program reflected a new emphasis on childhood obesity within the 2010 reauthorization of the CNA, or the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. However, this law will expire on September 30, 2015.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one-third, or 12 million American children and adolescents, were overweight or obese in 2012. According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of Americans see obesity as a “very serious public health problem.” While 57 percent of Americans believe government should play a significant role in reducing obesity among children, only 42 percent of the public believes the government should address adult obesity.
A moderately overweight individual can live a long, relatively healthy life, but few can escape the detrimental health effects of obesity. In 2008, the CDCreported the explicit cost of obesity totaled $147 billion. The health consequences of obesity are particularly stark for children. In 2005, Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, noted, “we may see the first generation that will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
The most recent CNA reauthorization set the precedent for federal intervention on rising childhood obesity rates. Title II of HHFKA is “Reducing Childhood Obesity and Improving the Diets of Children.” This language represents a significant policy change. The HHFKA’s immediate predecessor, the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, repeatedly recognized the impact of childhood obesity on public health outcomes, but obesity was not a Title of the bill.
Of the four federal programs in HHFKA, the National School Lunch Program is the most significant in both size and reach. NLSP funds lunch in more than “100,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions.” To qualify, families’ household income must be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, about $22,000 for a family of four.
Both student beneficiaries and the costs of free and reduced lunches have dramatically increased in the last decade. In 2012, the NSLP provided meals to 31 million children at a cost of $11.6 billion, while 24 million students ate free and reduced lunches in 1990 for a cost of $3.7 billion.
CNA requires school districts to adhere to the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Service’s joint Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In 2010, the Dietary Guidelines recommended macronutrient proportions by age and caloric intake by gender, age, and activity level. States’ departments of education are responsible for enforcement. Implementation disparities explain the wide variety of both appetizing and aesthetically pleasing school lunches found underneath the Twitter and Facebook hashtag “Thanks Michelle Obama,” a phrase used by students in both sarcasm and sincerity.
Despite vocal disapproval by some districts, the USDA announced in late 2013 that most schools would cooperate with new reforms. Only one-half of one percent of schools withdrew from the NSLP following updated nutritional standards.
The NSLP’s nutritional guidelines, promoted by the Let’s Move! campaign and formally instituted by the HHFKA, represent the first distinct federal policy to reduce childhood obesity. However, eating nutritious foods is only one-half of the equation. Current programs largely overlook the importance of regular, cardiovascular exercise. Although federally funded research programs recognize that the modern obesity epidemic derives from both increases in caloric intake and decreases in muscular exertion, current programs ignore child exercise needs.
Federal programming reflects heightened public scrutiny. Children over-consume soda, often referred to as “liquid candy,” and other products with substantial amounts of high fructose corn syrup. Fast food is low in nutritional value and cost, but high in calories, sodium, fat, and carbohydrates. Secondly, the public blames childhood obesity on the overindulgence of media consumption. Children now watch an estimated five hours of television each day and spend more time playing video games than engaging in games with peers outside the home. Because the public sees the replacement of physical fitness with media consumption as a micro-decision best addressed by parents and communities, federal policy solutions have attempted only to solve the first problem.
Only one in three American children are active every day. Of children ages 9-13, 77 percent participated in free-time physical activity in the last week, while less than half of high school students attend physical education classes. Many schools with required physical education courses “granted students exemptions for reasons not recommended in the CDC’s School Health Guidelines.” In 2013, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provided daily physical education for all students, according to Robert Paalberg. Only 30 percent of all elementary, middle, and high schools in the country require or recommend teachers to submit student fitness level test results to the state or school district.
Using the NLSP to promote exercise and participation in physical fitness classes in schools could shift the public narrative of child obesity in the United States. A productive, less controversial political dialogue can produce policies that encourage physical exertion in public schools rather than limiting an individual child’s media consumption at home. Federal agencies have long promoted exercise as an alternative policy solution. In the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the Department of Health and Human Services advises schools to “provide time for structured and unstructured physical activity during school and outside of school…[t]hrough recess, physical activity breaks, physical education classes, [and] after-school programs.”
Like the Dietary Guidelines for nutrition standards in HHFKA, the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans detail specific recommendations to maintain a healthy level of physical fitness. Children ages 6 to 17 should participate in at least 60 minutes or more of moderate or vigorous physical activity daily, including aerobic activity, and muscle- and bone-strengthening exercises.
Policy analysts have long argued that the strongest government actions to combat obesity are at the state and local level. State legislators in California, in particular, have amended the state Education Code to require schools to offer kindergarten through sixth-grade students 200 minutes of physical education instruction for every 10 days of class. State law mandates that all public schools administer a fitness test annually.
In 2010, a study of over one million students in California’s public schools found, “district initiatives in healthy eating and fitness have helped whittle down obesity rates over time,” although the quality of the courses vary. In particular, the obesity rate fellfrom 42.6 percent to 41.6 percent from 2005 to 2010, a rapid decline in five years.
California’s programs and requirements could serve as a model for the 2015 CNA. For instance, the CNA could place conditions on federal aid, just as HHKFA requires schools to meet nutritional standards to participate in NLSP. For schools that currently do not have the infrastructure or employees to teach physical education, the government could fund a competitive grant to secure funding. Second, the law could require schools to test student’s fitness levels and report findings to the district and state.
Third, the 2015 CNA could institute an incentive system to encourage student participation in physical education courses, by reducing exemptions from class attendance or providing a reward for active involvement. The 2008 Physical Activities Guidelines note that schools must “encourage young people to participate in physical activities that are appropriate for their age, that are enjoyable, and that offer variety.”
The political feasibility of these three policy options is certainly debatable. Conservatives will likely disapprove of additional government intervention into state and local school districts, while liberals will worry about the disproportionate financial burden placed onto schools in low socioeconomic areas. The money required to fund such initiatives must be either be taken from other programs or subsidized by taxation – either of which will result in political controversy. However, the policy alternatives presented here function as an introduction to dialogue. The public narrative must shift from reducing the overconsumption of unhealthy foods to encouraging exercise in physical education courses to reduce childhood obesity in the United States.
Haley Swartz is a first year Accelerated Master of Public Policy student in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. A Charlottesville, VA native, she majored in Women’s Studies and Government as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Her policy areas of interest include food and nutrition, equitable international development, and gender equality.
This piece reflects the opinion of the author only and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Third Rail, the Virginia Policy Review, or any of its affiliated editors, writers, and staffers.