Category Archives: Nutrition policy
A recently published research brief finds that six months after updated U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for healthier meals were implemented in public schools, elementary and high school students are buying—and eating—the healthier meals.
The brief published by Bridging the Gap, a national research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), shows that 70 percent of elementary school principals and school food directors said that students generally liked the healthier school lunches that began being served in the fall of 2012. Similarly, 70 percent of middle school students and 63 percent of high school students also like the meals. These are the first national studies to examine students’ reactions to the healthier meals.
“The updated meals standards are resulting in healthier meals for tens of millions of kids,” said Lindsey Turner, lead author of the elementary school study, and a co-investigator for Bridging the Gap. “Our studies show that kids are OK with these changes, and that there have not been widespread challenges with kids not buying or eating the meals.”
The survey responders were asked about students’ initial reaction to the meals in fall 2012, and how things were progressing a few months afterwards. Findings included:
- About half of the responders from elementary schools (56 percent) reported that students complained at first, but by spring 2013 64 percent of responders said few students were complaining.
- In middle schools, the percentage of students complaining dropped from 44 percent in fall 2012 to 11 percent in spring 2013. High schools saw similar declines, from 53 percent to 18 percent.
- Eighty-four percent of elementary school responders said approximately the same number of students (or more) were purchasing lunch this school year as did the previous year.
- Seventy percent of responders said middle-school students generally liked the new lunches, as did 63 percent of responders from high schools.
“The updated meal standards are a landmark achievement—they make schools healthier places for our nation’s children and are a critical step toward reversing the childhood obesity epidemic and building a Culture of Health nationwide,” said Tina Kauh, program officer at RWJF. “Policymakers at all levels should be encouraged by these findings and should continue to support schools’ efforts to provide students with healthy meals and snacks.”
NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Lindsey Turner about the study findings.
NewPublicHealth: News reports from about a year back seemed to indicate some kids were not happy with the healthier lunches. But your studies show that for the most part school lunches are being well-received.
Lindsey Turner: Many of those news stories were early on soon after the lunches had been changed. They’re also based on fairly small numbers of schools or case reports, and so one challenge with that is that it may not necessarily be representative of schools in general across the country. One of the strengths of our study is that we were able to get data from a fairly large number of schools from all across the country, which presents a little bit more of a balanced picture of what’s actually going on.
Sixteen major food and beverage companies acting together as part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the United States in 2012 than they did in 2007, according to a study published last week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The companies collectively pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2012, and 1.5 trillion by 2015.
An independent evaluation funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) found that the companies have already exceeded their 2015 pledge by more than 400 percent.
Today, at 2 p.m. ET, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO of RWJF, and Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo and chair of the HWCF, will discuss the findings and efforts in an online event. PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff will moderate.
A new article from The Atlantic Cities reports on a recent study that finds that restaurants are shifting to become the predominant teen hang-out spot, rather than the malls of the past. According to a recent report on teen behavior, teenagers now spend more money on food and events than on clothes. And while an increase in mall closings may be driving younger people to eateries, the report finds that a greater interest in hanging out at restaurants also drove some of the drop in mall traffic—along with competition from the Internet.
The report doesn’t say what the teens are eating while they mingle, but the trend comes at a good time for them to access information on healthier diets, as under the Affordable Care Act many restaurants must now post nutrition information. Though studies have been mixed about the results of menu labeling, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that, overall, public health studies may be beginning to show that menu labeling may influence consumers to choose healthier options. And while many food outlets have chosen to share that information online rather than on walls, digital-savvy teens may already have the tools to find it—though they may need a push from social media or other educational outreach channels to do so.
Read the article from The Atlantic Cities.
Eat well. That’s today’s theme for National Public Health Week—and it’s good advice. After all, according to the American Public Health Association, Americans are now eating 31 percent more calories than we did 40 years ago, including 56 percent more fats and oils and 14 percent more sugars and sweeteners. The average American eats 15 more pounds of sugar a year today than in 1970.
There are new food-oriented websites and smartphone apps (many free) that can help people keep track of what foods they’re eating and what’s in those foods.
At the Milk Street Café in Boston, for example, the restaurant’s ordering site lets you filter the full menu into just the categories you want. Click low “fat” and the tailored breakfast menu leaves off the breakfast pastries and zooms in on the yogurt parfaits.
Other recent apps include:
- Locavore, which points to farmers’ markets and produce stands in your neighborhood.
- Harvest, which offers tips for choosing ripe produce.
- Fooducate, a food database on your smartphone that includes basic nutrient and calorie information, plus high points of each food such as the fiber quantify of crackers.
- Substitutions, an app finds alternatives when you can’t use the ingredient in the original recipe because of an allergy or other dietary restriction. Popular tip: Swap in fat-free yogurt when the recipe calls for fat-free sour cream to save calories.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture hosts the Food Access Research Atlas, which presents a spatial overview of food access indicators for low-income and other census tracts using different measures of supermarket accessibility. The app is valuable for community planning and research.
Earlier this week a new Roundtable on Obesity Solutions, established by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), convened its first meeting in Washington, D.C.
The goal of the Roundtable, which plans to meet over the next several years, is to engage leadership from multiple sectors to help solve the U.S. obesity crisis. According to the IOM, more than one third of adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, and some estimates tag the cost of obesity at almost 10 percent of the national health care budget. Obesity also increases rates of chronic disease and their associated costs. The Roundtable will convene meetings, public workshops, background papers and “innovation collaboratives” with a goal of “accelerating and sustaining progress in obesity prevention and care,” according chair Lynn Parker, formerly with the Food Research and Action Center in New York City.
The overarching themes of the Roundtable will include:
- Viewing the problem of obesity from a systems perspective
- Achieving health equity through focused action and research
- Developing and using effective communication strategies
- Identifying innovative financing mechanisms
- Evaluating progress
The opening speaker at this week’s meeting was Bill Dietz, a former Director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and now a consultant to the Institute of Medicine. Dietz pointed to reports last year that found signs of progress in efforts to reverse the obesity epidemic, with decreases in obesity among preschoolers from low-income families in 18 states.
“Change is beginning and change in a positive direction is taking place,” said Dietz. “The challenge is how we, working together, manage to accelerate this progress. How do we make the decline of obesity the norm and the mainstream of the future?”
Dietz said that research shows that obesity among women has plateaued, which could indicate gains to come if compared with the history of smoking reduction, which showed plateaus in rates of smoking just before major policy changes. Dietz said subsequent initiatives were successful because the public was already aware of the dangers.
Presenters were asked to suggest innovative ideas for preventing obesity and reducing rates overall. Among them were:
- Making physical activity a core component of the school day
- Engaging parents
- Tailoring interventions to culture and audience
- Sustainable approaches, including businesses working on obesity prevention and sharing what works best for them
Several speakers mentioned the need to account for different community needs when addressing obesity.
“Each community faces different challenges so the multifaceted approach will look different in each community,” said speaker Jeff Levi, PhD, executive director of advocacy group Trust for America’s Health.
“We’ll make change by making the healthy choice the easier choice and a health in all policies approach,” said Howard Koh, MD, MPH, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2012 alone, the fast food industry spent $4.6 billion to advertise mostly unhealthy products, with many of those ads specifically targeting children and teens. A new report, Fast Food FACTS 2013, examined 18 of the nation’s top fast-food restaurants, following up on a 2010 report to see how the food selection and advertising landscapes have changed. And while there have been some positive developments—healthier sides and beverages are available in most kids’ meals—the findings indicate there is still a very long way to go.
Detailed findings from the report, which was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will be presented today at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) annual meeting in Boston.
>>Read more on the Fast Food FACTS 2013 report.
>>NewPublicHealth will be on the ground throughout the APHA conference speaking to public health leaders, hearing from attendees on the ground and providing updates from sessions, with a focus on building a culture of health. Follow the coverage here.
NewPublicHealth spoke with Jennifer Harris, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity’s director of marketing initiatives and lead author of the report, and Marlene Schwartz, the Center’s director, about their findings and how fast food advertising continues to impact our nation’s youth.
NewPublicHealth: Has any progress been made in the nutritional quality of fast food kids' meals?
Jennifer Harris: There have been a lot of changes in kids’ meals over the past three years and a lot of it has been good. Most of the restaurants have added healthy sides and healthy beverages to their kids’ meals. Now it’s possible to get a fairly healthy kids’ meal at most of the restaurants we looked at. But the problem is it’s kind of like finding a needle in a haystack. Almost all of the meals they offer are high in fat, sugar or sodium.
Marlene Schwartz: The odds of you getting the healthy combination when you go are extraordinarily low. For every healthy combination, there are roughly 250 unhealthy combinations.
Research shows that people invariably look at Mondays as a time to reconsider their habits and even perhaps to make changes in their lives. The Monday Campaigns movement is a non-profit initiative that works to make healthy behaviors a focus at the beginning of every week.
NewPublicHealth spoke with Rachelle Reeder, Program & Research Associate at The Monday Campaigns, about how their efforts are helping to improve public health.
NewPublicHealth: We’re very interested about the Monday conferences and college students. Are they a specific demographic that you’re targeting now?
Rachelle Reeder: Yes. We’ve been targeting many different groups, whether it’s hospitals, college students, K-12. We target a lot of different groups depending on the campaigns. We provide universities—or any of our partners, but universities particularly—with catchy social marketing campaigns to kind of help and encourage the students to adopt and sustain healthy behaviors, and we do everything for free. So we might be working with student health centers, with food service providers, wellness teams or student groups themselves. But our organization is this blend of marketers and public health professionals, so usually what we’re able to offer universities are these compelling, creative campaigns that are also backed by research and a theory.
So that’s one of the great things about the Monday campaigns. And actually, I’m a public health professional myself and I’ve seen a lot of universities or public health services out there and they’re doing great things, but they don’t always have the skills or the capacity to market themselves, so that’s kind of where we step in and provide them with that marketing and creative expertise.
NPH: How would the efforts toward college students be different than they would be toward an older or even a younger demographic?
Reeder: It just kind of depends on the tone of the different campaigns that we take. For instance, we have Man Up Monday, which was really successful over at Murray State University. That campaign has kind of a cheeky sort of fun vibe that’s supposed to be a little bit funny, but what it is it’s reaching out to young men and it’s all about sexual health. Basically they encourage young men to engage in healthy sexual behavior on Mondays, to use Monday as the day to restock condoms, to make an appointment to get tested or to just reflect on decisions over the weekend. So that’s just an example of one of our university partners and that campaign wouldn’t necessarily be something we’d target for younger audiences or something like that.
While laws to help make it easier for everyone to get their veggies are cropping up all over, some would-be planters get stopped in their carrot tracks by regulations that prohibit use of public spaces for planting, or even limit what can be grown on private property, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal [note: subscription required]. In some jurisdictions, according to the article, sidewalk gardeners have been fined and may lack the clout to advocate for changing the laws.
>>Bonus Link: Read about Urban Farming, a nonprofit group with high-profile corporate sponsors that supports gardens on unused land.
GUEST POST by Virgie Townsend, JD, associate editor at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO)
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon was recently eating lunch with elementary school students in Louisiana when a first-grader leaned over to him and said, “Sir, if you don’t finish your broccoli, I’ll finish it for you.”
In a session at the recent ASTHO Annual Meeting, Concannon cited this as one example of the progress being made in the fight against the obesity epidemic, applauding schools for creatively modifying their healthy recipes to appeal to kids. USDA aims to ensure that children receive fruits and vegetables at every meal, while still reducing trans fats and sodium in the food, said Concannon. Another school he visited adds a bit of green gelatin to their cups of applesauce—just enough to give the applesauce a hint of color, which makes it a popular lunch choice for the students, a large majority of whom come from impoverished backgrounds.
“Our goal is to ensure that Americans routinely have access to sound nutrition,” Concannon said. “We’re in the midst of an obesity crisis.”
Concannon discussed how USDA’s school lunch and breakfast programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and WIC are working to create healthier environments by providing children with nutritious food options in schools and at home. He also called the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 “one of the most significant” recent advances for child nutrition, and said, “We are on the verge of the first major changes to school meals in 15 years.”
>>Read up on a first-of-its-kind health impact assessment on a federal rule that would require updating school nutrition standards for snacks and beverages to meet the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Although great strides have been made toward improving Americans’ access to healthy food, Concannon said USDA is seeking a greater partnership with public health leaders to promote wellness in schools.
“We would love to connect even more with [with public health officials] on wellness programs in schools,” he said. “We have huge challenges around obesity.”
He urged state health agencies to engage with schools on the entire wellness message, including promoting fitness at all levels of schooling.
In addition to reaching out to public health leaders at the ASTHO annual meeting, Concannon announced that USDA has begun working on dietary guidelines for children from birth to 2 years of age, which will be the first USDA guidelines to cover that age span. The new dietary guidelines will be released in 2015.
Following Concannon’s presentation, Hawaii Department of Health Director Loretta Deliana Fuddy described her agency’s partnership with the Hawaii Department of Education. She also gave examples of how Hawaii is enacting USDA’s recommendations on child nutrition, including training school cafeteria staff to be more creative in their healthy recipes, promoting breastfeeding, and forging strong relationships with community centers to address health inequities.
Next week from May 7th through 9th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity will host the Weight of the Nation™ conference in Washington, DC. Hosted just once before in 2009, this year’s event will highlight key issues in the effort to prevent obesity, and share research showing what’s working to help kids and families be active and eat a healthier diet.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and many researchers, practitioners and advocates it funds will be at the event. If you’re attending, visit RWJF at booths 206 and 208. Foundation staff members will be in attendance to talk with conference participants. If you can’t be in D.C., be sure to follow the RWJF childhood obesity team on Twitter, @RWJF_ChdObesity, for updates throughout the three days. Also check out the event’s website, where you can access a full agenda of sessions, some of which will be webcast live: www.weightofthenation.org. On May 10, visit www.rwjf.org/childhoodobesity to read session highlights and see videos from the conference.