PUBLICATIONS & TOOLS
- Report: Chain restaurants continue serving meals with high sodium content
- USDA Releases MyPlate for My Family
- Alliance for a Healthier Generation releases model wellness policy
CHILDHOOD OBESITY RESEARCH & NEWS
- Prescribing vegetables, not pills
- Congress takes bite out of school lunch rules
- Ohio passes bill to allow ‘shared use’ of school facilities
Fast food consumption in children linked to poorer academic outcomes
Dec. 23, 2014, The Washington Post [Wonkblog]
By Roberto A. Ferdman
Fast food consumption isn’t merely connected to increases in pant size — it’s tied to significant decreases in test scores among school children, according to a new national study.
Researchers at Ohio State University used data from a nationally representative sample of some 11,700 children to measure how fast food might be affecting their performance in class. The study measured how much fast food the children were eating at age 10, and then compared the consumption levels to test results in reading, math, and science three years later.
What they found is that even small increases in the frequency with which the students ate fast food were associated with poorer academic test results. Habitual fast food eaters — those who ate fast food daily — saw “test score gains that were up to about 20 percent lower than those who didn’t eat any fast food.”
The connection held true even after the researchers took into account more than a dozen other factors about the children’s habits and backgrounds that might have contributed to the association between fast food consumption and poorer academic performance, including fitness, broader eating habits, socioeconomic status, and characteristics of both their neighborhood and school.
“Our results show clear and consistent associations between children’s fast food consumption in fifth grade and academic growth between fifth and eighth grade,” the researchers wrote. “These results provide initial evidence that fast food consumption is associated with deleterious academic outcomes among children.”
More than half of the students the researchers observed ate fast food between one and three times a week, and nearly three quarters of them ate fast food at least once a week.
“Fast-food consumption was quite high in these students,” Kelly Purtell, the study’s lead author, said in a statement.
While the study observed children’s eating habits in 2004, and therefore could point to fast food consumption levels that are no longer representative of current trends, there’s reason to believe little has changed. Nearly a third of American kids between the ages of 2 and 11 — and nearly half of those aged 12 to 19 — eat or drink something from a fast food restaurant each day, according to a study from 2008. And fast food still accounts for roughly 13 percent of total calories eaten by children and teenagers aged 2 to 18 in the United States.
Purtell is careful to point out that while there’s a strong suggestion that feeding children fast food negatively affects their academic performance, the study falls short of establishing a definitive causal connection. While her team can’t prove a fast food-heavy diet caused lower test scores gains, the group insists that fast food consumption helps explain at least part of the performance gap between the students.
Why exactly fast food could be blunting school children’s brains is unclear. A study conducted last year showed that nutrients like iron, which can be lacking in fast food, are essential for the development of a child’s brain. Diets high in fat and cholesterol have also been linked to poorer memory.
Publications & Tools
Report: Chain restaurants continue serving meals with high sodium content
In the past two years there was almost no reduction in the average sodium content in more than 3,000 meals served by the 25 largest restaurant chains in the United States, according to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The report found that the average sodium content of the analyzed meals in 2014 declined by less than 1 percent since 2012. While an 8 percent reduction in sodium content was found for kid’s menu items overall, some restaurants increased the average sodium in kid’s menu items by up to 21 percent.
USDA Releases MyPlate for My Family
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the resource, “MyPlate for My Family: SNAP Nutrition Education.” An updated toolkit and nutrition education curriculum, “MyPlate for My Family” is designed for parents and caregivers who are SNAP participants or people eligible for SNAP who play a key role in planning, purchasing, and preparing food for their families. These materials can also be used in other settings with similar target audiences, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; the Child and Adult Care Food Program; and National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. The toolkit includes educator and participant resources in English and Spanish that can assist community providers, educators, and professionals in their efforts to improve eating and physical activity behaviors.
Alliance for a Healthier Generation releases model wellness policy
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been working with districts across the country since 2006 to create and implement strong wellness policies, guided by evidence-based practices. In November 2014 the Alliance published a model wellness policy to help school districts get ahead of finalized school wellness policy requirements anticipated from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2015. The model meets the requirements outlined in USDA’s proposed rule and can be utilized by school districts nationwide as a template for updating their policies.
Childhood Obesity Research & News
Prescribing vegetables, not pills
Dec. 1, 2014, The New York Times [Well Blog]
By Jane E. Brody
Alaijah Borden was 10 years old and significantly overweight when Dr. Sundari Periasamy, a pediatrician at Harlem Hospital Center in New York, enrolled the middle-schooler in an innovative program to increase her consumption of fruits and vegetables — and, hopefully, to reduce her weight.
After two years in the program, Alaijah is an unqualified success story: She lost five pounds the first year by snacking on fruits and vegetables, then eight pounds more the second year, when she cut down on greasy foods.
Her mother, Sheryl Brown, 33, said Alaijah used to sabotage home-cooked family dinners by buying junk food — cookies, cakes, and other snacks — on her way to and from school. Now Alaijah carries fruit or cut-up vegetables to school. She likes raw carrots, celery, and broccoli.
“It’s really an awesome program that’s made it more affordable for me to get fruits and vegetables,” Ms. Brown said. “I told my daughter it’s better to be told you’re overweight and here’s the solution than to just be told you’re overweight and sent home.”
Mom, too, has benefited. Though not overweight, Ms. Brown loves to snack and had developed high blood pressure. She brought it under control without medication when, like her daughter, she switched her snacks to fruits and vegetables.
The Browns are among 50 low-income families with overweight or obese children enrolled in the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, or FVRx, at Harlem Hospital Center. Three other hospitals in New York also have been testing the program.
The program was created by Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit organization that advocates for access to better food in low-income neighborhoods, in partnership with the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and the city’s Health and Hospital Corporation. It is a startlingly simple idea to deal with a complex problem.
Instead of drugs or admonishments to lose weight…, doctors provide families in the FVRx program with a “prescription” to eat fruits and vegetables. The families also are given nutritional education, recipes and, most important of all, so-called Health Bucks that are redeemable for produce at a local farmers’ market — at twice the amount that the families could purchase with food stamps alone. There is no single solution to the nation’s epidemic of obesity and the costly diseases that result from it, but this and similar programs at community health centers in 30 states strongly suggest that providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, with the means to purchase them and the motivation to do so, can make a meaningful dent in the problem.
New York’s FVRx program operates in poor areas known as “food deserts,” where eating at places like McDonald’s is both cheaper and easier than purchasing fresh foods and preparing them at home.
“For people today with income shortages, getting good food like high-quality fruits and vegetables is a big problem,” said Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave, which supports the programs at community health centers.
“A movement to restrict food stamps to healthy foods is well-meaning, but it wouldn’t work in many areas where 7-Elevens are the main source of people’s food,” said Mr. Nischan, a former chef who began focusing on nutrition when his son developed type 1 diabetes. The goal is to “level the playing field between artificial, cheap, unhealthy stuff and the healthy foods that wealthier people enjoy.”
It is a win-win endeavor. Participants who qualify get tokens — or, in New York and Boston, Health Bucks — to spend on fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets. The farmers are reimbursed for the full value of their goods with dollars from community-based nonprofits and grants.
Participating farmers also benefit: They sell more produce, increasing their income on average nearly 37 percent. And they are able to hire more people, put more land in production, diversify crop plantings, and invest more in farm operations, Mr. Nischan said.
Last year, two New York public hospitals — Harlem in Manhattan and Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx — tested this approach with 550 children and their families, through a two-year $500,000 grant from the Tisch fund. This year Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan offered the program to an additional 650 children and family members.
Each month, the young patients meet with their doctor or nutritionist to renew their FVRx, have their weight and body mass index evaluated, and get additional advice on how to achieve a healthy diet.
An analysis of last year’s results found that 97 percent of the children and 96 percent of their families ate more fruits and vegetables after joining the program. More than 90 percent of families shopped at farmers’ markets weekly or more than two or three times a month, and 70 percent understood more about the health value of fruits and vegetables.
Most astonishing, perhaps, after just four months in the program 40 percent of participating children lowered their body mass index (BMI).
Dr. Periasamy said there is “so much enthusiasm for the program” among both the children and their families, all of whom benefit from the nutrition education and fresh produce. One child told her, “I tried a cucumber today, and it’s good, actually.” A grandmother who had been eating canned foods “all these years” said she is now happy to be eating fresh fruits and vegetables.
The hospital-based programs and accompanying farmers’ markets in New York ended last month. But competition and consumer enthusiasm have prompted nearby markets and bodegas to carry more and better produce and to price it more affordably, so that families with limited incomes can have year-round access, according to the program directors.
Ms. Brown froze some summer produce to use in cooking after the markets shut down for the season. And her daughter has developed a new enthusiasm.
“Alaijah had conversations with the farmers at the market and learned a lot about how things are grown and what’s in season,” Ms. Brown said. “Last summer she participated in a new community garden. She was excited by what was grown, because she knew what they were after going to the farmers’ market.”
The goal now, Laurie Tisch said in an interview, is to let other cities know that this approach works and is worth replicating on a larger scale.
Congress takes bite out of school lunch rules
Dec. 10, 2014, The Wall Street Journal
By Tennille Tracy
School food workers have been complaining for months about the breakfast and lunch standards being rolled out by the Obama administration. Now, Congress has seen fit to give them a break.
Tucked inside the spending bill unveiled on Dec. 9, dubbed the Cromnibus, are two tweaks to the school food standards. One freezes the existing limits on sodium, which were scheduled to ratchet down over time, and another gives states the ability to waive whole grains standards for schools that are struggling.
The school food regulations “were well-intended, but have resulted in unintended, adverse consequences,” said Patricia Montague, chief executive of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food workers.
The school meal standards, introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2012, require schools to provide specific amounts of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, and to limit sodium and fat. Many public schools provide free or discounted meals to students that are funded by the federal government and must abide by its rules.
Some requirements get tighter over time. Starting this year, for example, schools have to make sure that 100 percent of their grains are whole grain rich, up from 50 percent the year before. That means everything from croutons to the breading on a chicken patty has to include whole grains.
The change being proposed by Congress would scale back that requirement for some schools to 50 percent.
School food managers have balked that the standards are too expensive to meet, given the higher costs of fresh food, and that students are rejecting early attempts to meet the standards. Fruit and vegetables end up in the trash, the schools said.
According to USDA data released earlier this month, the number of students participating in school lunch programs dropped by 1.4 million to 30.3 million since the standards were introduced in 2012, the largest decline in years. And #ThanksMichelleObama has become a Twitter meme, with students posting pictures of unappealing lunches.
The changes being proposed by Congress fall short of what Republicans and some school food workers had been seeking — namely, a one-year waiver for schools that had been losing money on their meal programs for at least six months. But they are probably just the opening salvo in a battle for broader reforms next year.
The Child Nutrition Act, the law in which school food regulations are addressed, comes up for reauthorization next year, giving a Republican-controlled House and Senate the opportunity to make more significant or permanent reforms.
According to the USDA, the cost of complying with the current standards is expected to triple this year, to $1.2 billion. School food experts said Congress should not have used the spending bill to make policy changes to the national breakfast and lunch programs.
“It’s unfortunate that Congress chose to edit nutrition policy as those decisions should be based on evidence and science, but the compromise is far less damaging than a waiver would have been,” said Jessica Donze Black, a director at the Pew Charitable Trusts and an expert on school nutrition.
Ohio passes bill to allow ‘shared use’ of school facilities
Dec. 17, 2014, Newswise
By Diana Novak Jones
Ohio lawmakers have made it easier for schools to open their gymnasiums, pools, playgrounds, running track, athletic fields, and other facilities to public use during non-school hours by passing legislation on Dec. 17 that clarifies liability issues.
The ‘shared-use’ bill, which becomes law 90 days after it’s signed by Gov. John R. Kasich, does not automatically open school facilities to the public. However, it does alleviate what school administrators say was the biggest concern about expanding access. Advocates anticipate the bill will be signed soon.
“This bill will relieve some of that and ease the liability situation,” said State Representative Gerald Stebelton, the sponsor of Ohio House Bill 290. “There may still be some custodial expenses, but I think that this will be a good thing for school districts and give them greater comfort in opening their facilities.”
An American Heart Association policy statement published in the American Journal of Public Health last year recommended school districts and community organizations create shared-use agreements to allow supervised activities like sports leagues and unsupervised playing as a way to promote increased physical activity in children and young adults. Such agreements may be particularly important for low-income communities, which have less access to recreational spaces and community recreation centers, according to the statement.
The United States has an obesity epidemic, with nearly one in three children and teens overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963. Among adults, obesity rates have risen to 34 percent. Despite this, nearly 50 percent of adults and 65 percent of adolescents do not get the recommended amount of physical activity each day. Lack of physical activity plays an important role in community health.
Rep. Stebelton said the bill is an important step as communities look for tools to promote healthy lifestyles.
“The ability for schools to open up their doors to the community will help maximize community involvement and hopefully begin to support activities that lead to active living, reduce obesity, increase community safety, and promote community support for public schools,” he said.
A coalition of more than 20 organizations, including the American Heart Association, the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, and the Healthy Policy Institute of Ohio worked to garner support for the bill.
Kate Moening, Ohio advocacy organizer for Safe Routes to School National Partnership/Ohio Safe Routes Network, said the bill is an important policy tool.
“Clarifying liability issues provides better guidance for administrators when making decisions to open their properties for public recreational use, so kids, families, and residents can be active close to home, especially in underserved communities with few areas to play and be active,” she said.
Costs and liability concerns were the key barriers to creating shared-use agreements, according research by Mary Chace, an assistant professor and program director for the Public Health Education program at Wright State University in Dayton, O.H.
Chace’s survey of school officials, mostly superintendents, showed 38.5 percent had formal shared-use agreements, while 65.6 percent had informal ones.
“It’s one thing to informally have things open and it’s a whole other thing to truly open your doors to public use for physical activity,” Chace said. “We want to move toward a model where the community is welcomed to the gyms, weight rooms, and track—even if there’s a fee. It’s a travesty to have these wonderful facilities in every community and have them locked up to the people who are paying for them.”
The campaign to garner support included groundwork to assist communities to establish shared-use agreements, an effort to hasten implementation, said Cresha Auck Foley, AHA’s Government Relations Director for Ohio. Resources developed during the campaign are already helping local conversations and even have been useful in other states working to clarify their own rules for the use of school owned recreational facilities by other government and non-government entities for use outside the school day.
“Liability fears shouldn’t be a barrier to helping children and families be active,” Auck Foley said.
Including Ohio, 30 states have already passed similar legislation to remove barriers to shared-use agreements or already had it on their books. The AHA is working on similar efforts in Iowa, West Virginia, Montana, and Washington, D.C.