- When the U.S. Department of Agriculture Friday announced new transitional nutritional standards for up to the next two school years, it introduced what are expected to be real improvements regarding more whole grain requirements, lowering sodium levels and improving milk options, said Geri Henchy, the Food Research & Action Center’s director of nutrition policy.
- Child and teen obesity is on the upswing in the pandemic, with a September report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding the body mass index of 432,302 people ages 2-19 about doubled since COVID-19 struck. Younger school-aged children and those who were already overweight or obese before the pandemic faced the largest increases in weight, the CDC said.
- The CDC report on the spike in U.S. childhood obesity remains concerning to child health experts, who are hopeful the findings will encourage Congress to pass legislation like the recently reintroduced Healthy Meal Time Act, which would provide schools with research on best practices for scheduling lunch and recess.
As school closures caused by the pandemic began nearly two years ago, forcing students to stay home and learn in front of screens, experts expected childhood obesity might rise.
Even so, the CDC’s latest findings on childhood obesity were shocking to Terri Drain, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators.
“It was a lot worse than I was expecting,” Drain said. “I think we all thought, ‘OK, kids are at home, they’re not going to school, it’s going to have an impact on obesity levels,’ but not really expect it to be to that level, that quickly.”
Henchy considers the CDC findings to be the equivalent to reports about declining academic performance emerging from the pandemic.
In fact, school meals can be the healthiest meal a child eats during the day, according to research published in 2021 by JAMA Network Open. That’s why it’s so critical that children have access to school meals and go to school for physical activity, Henchy said.
To continue meal access for students and keep school meal programs running, Henchy said Congress needs to extend the USDA’s nutrition waiver authority set to expire June 30. For the next two years, USDA will also speak with school meal program stakeholders seeking ways to build “stronger, more resilient” programs, the federal agency said.
Overall, this opportunity will allow for more voices to impact USDA policies, Henchy said.
The Healthy Meal Time Act, reintroduced by Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., is a good example of legislation that could help students get the time they need for a healthy lunch, Henchy said.
Students need time to get through a cafeteria line, talk with friends and eat, she said.
While Drain supports efforts like the Healthy Meal Time Act, she said it’s a mere “drop in the bucket” to address the growing problem of childhood obesity.
“Obesity is a social justice issue, and there’s so much more that we need to do,” Drain said. “We basically have to reexamine … what’s the goal of schools? Is it to prepare every child to live their best lives? I would argue that it currently is not. It’s basically to create a workforce.”
It’s also key that physical education is funded adequately, she said, because historically PE is typically the first to face funding cuts when there are financial struggles in districts.
Quality PE. programs taught by credentialed experts must also be required to make a difference in children’s health, Drain said.
“Are we going to learn anything from COVID, and is anything going to change once this is over, or are we going to revert back to the way things were?” Drain asked.