Opinion: U.S. Congress and food manufacturers at odds over childhood obesity

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Opinion: U.S. Congress and food manufacturers at odds over childhood obesity

By Digit Scans co-founder and BerryBroad Juanita Gaglio

Everyone wants to get involved in the war on childhood obesity in the U.S., from Congress to British chef Jamie Oliver, but who will ultimately have the most impact to effect long term nutritious change?

It is a fact that U.S. children are obese. Potato chips and French fries make up 50% of all vegetables that children aged 17 and under consume here. The Government is alarmed by the idea of a whole generation that is obese with prospects of a shorter life span than their parents. Diabetes is just one of the serious residual effects of a corpulent generation, and is poised to crush an already overburdened U.S. health care system.

Childhood obesity statistics have shown a three-fold increase between 1990 and 2011 with the U.S. Government declaring it a "national epidemic". What began as a noble effort to provide healthy nutritious meals to school children has now been elevated to the ranks of corporate American food companies.  Who is responsible for this epidemic and will healthy food win out over "fast food?"

What do American kids like to eat? A recent federal report states the prime source of calories for them today are: cookies, cakes, pizza and sweetened drinks. While Congress is attempting to tackle the topic of popular unhealthy food by delivering less fat, sugar and salt to these foods, most of them are readily available through school lunches or school vending machines. The cumulative health results of a long term “junk food” diet are not only an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, but also a psychological toll with increased risk of depression and anxiety.

Certain legislation to address the nutritional needs of America’s youth have been enacted, beginning in 1946 with the National School Lunch Act to the recent (2002) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program to qualifying schools. Today this lunch program reaches 31 million children each day. On the other end of the spectrum are the food manufacturers with the dollar power to advertise items from the daily school children's diet - their target audience.

Food manufacturers have millions of dollars at stake, with Congress pushing “voluntary” advertising marketing guidelines.  Industry marketing expenditures to this targeted group in 2006 was $50 million dollars for 10 categories of food including sugar-coated breakfast cereals, carbonated beverages and restaurant food.

Four U.S. government agencies - the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - aim to establish voluntary food marketing guidelines targeting children 17 years or younger. Criteria considered in these guidelines are calories, portion size, saturated fats, trans fat, sodium, added sugars, and the presence of nutrients, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Corporate food conglomerates are fighting against these efforts.

Will government attempts to control marketing guidelines to children be enough to change their palate to healthier eating? Without proper education and exposure to healthy food choices, fast food will win the war. Today it may not be valuable for students to learn how to can peaches, sew a dress or make the perfect gravy; that said, Home Economics could still be a valuable class for either sex when it comes to nutrition. Sadly, most schools have eliminated this class.

Education is still a primary method to teach children about healthy choices. Replacing Home Economics 101 is a new face on the scene, Jamie Oliver.  With a goal to save the health of America’s next generation - he is the U.S.' America’s youth school lunch advocate and has made great efforts to push the cause, from encouraging healthier school lunches to changing the ingredients of fast food outlets. To read more about what he has done you can see his website about the Food Revolution. Interestingly enough, the website features pop icons and celebrities who endorse his cause, but finding a fresh produce company there is not an easy task.

Kids are more interested in listening to celebrities than government guidelines or the industry’s Five a Day program.  No doubt kids would certainly give broccoli a try with celebrities’ endorsement on the Food Revolution site.  To date, more than 766,000 have signed the “Food Revolution” petition and 300,000 are  subscribing to the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution newsletter.  Yes, communities from Boise, Idaho to Seattle, Washington care, as shown on the “Food Revolution Map.”  Perhaps Congress should sign the pledge as well.

Perhaps the produce community should take a lesson from Jamie Oliver and combine forces with some of the ten categories that are heavily marketed to children.  Some of these categories can be cross-promoted with produce items, for example, adding nutritional value to cereals and dairy products by adding various fruit groups.

What about publishing a brief publication "Produce for Dummies" for school distribution. Kids are glued to their smartphones, so why not have a nationwide contest looking for the next 'youth ambassador' to represent a certain commodity - blast their image on all social media outlets.

Think like a kid to educate them. The dollar investment that the produce community invests in educating children will pay handsome dividends for generations to come both in increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, as well as healthier longevity of life. Now is the time for the produce industry to have a revolution of its own.

Do you have a produce revolution story to tell? Let us know at info@freshfruitportal.com or contact the BerryBroad via her website. You can also follow her on Twitter: @berrybroad


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