Public Health Leaders Play Key Role in Improving Child Nutrition

Sep 20, 2012, 11:59 AM

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.”

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.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.