Op-Ed, 655 words

Child Hunger and Obesity: A Double-Edged Sword

Lax standards allow far too many unhealthy junk foods to slip through the cracks and infiltrate our cafeterias.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro

When it comes to our children’s nutrition, we’re currently confronted with a double-edged sword. On one hand, we face a growing epidemic of child obesity that’s harming both our kids’ health and their quality of life. Even as adult obesity has doubled in recent years, we’ve seen child obesity triple. And from the very worthwhile efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama to draw attention to this issue to the recent report which found that 27 percent of young adults are too overweight to serve in the military, this trend has rightfully been much publicized.

But there’s another, more hidden side of this problem: Far too many kids in America today don’t get enough to eat. Far too many kids go to bed hungry. These two troubling trends of obesity and hunger may at first seem at cross-purposes. But in fact, they’re two sides of the same dismal coin.

Research has shown time and again that families struggling economically have a harder time affording healthy food options. Simply put, unhealthy food is cheaper and easier to get. This has a number of unwelcome implications for our kids. We know for a fact that hunger stunts growth, inhibits learning, and prevents children from reaching their full potential. That’s why I’m working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, and Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller to pass a Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act this year that will both increase access to these programs and improve the nutritional value of the foods children eat.

Most parents do the best they can, of course. But millions of struggling families need our help. In America today, one in five children, almost 14 million kids, lives below the federal poverty level. That number could well rise to one in four due to the recession.

This dismaying poverty rate means more hungry children. According to the Food Research Action Center, 24 percent of American households with children across the country have experienced food hardship in the past year, meaning they didn’t have the money to purchase the food their families desperately needed. In fact, more than two out of every three children who participate in the National School Lunch Program–69 percent!–currently qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

So it’s clear we must act. Government has long played a role in alleviating hunger, which we try to accomplish in many ways. For example, one in five children (and one in eight adults) currently receives food stamp assistance. In fact many more households qualify for food assistance than actually use it, including 55 percent of those eligible for school lunches and a whopping 92 percent of those eligible for the Child and Adult Care Food Program. So we must work harder to ensure that child nutrition efforts are getting aid to these people.

But, as we know, access to food only alleviates half of this crisis. We must also promote more physical activity and better eating habits for children, and work to encourage families and consumers–in the small but notable ways that government can–toward healthier food options.

Because kids consume roughly 35-50 percent of their daily calories during the school day, we must improve the nutritional quality of school food. Right now, lax standards allow far too many unhealthy junk foods to slip through the cracks and infiltrate our cafeterias. In addition, two-thirds of school lunches don’t adhere to the important daily recommendation of limiting fat to less than 30 percent of total calories, and a whopping 95 percent of school lunch participants exceed their recommended daily salt intake. Let’s update these standards, and make sure that schools are providing healthy options to students.

Taken together, the twin problems of obesity and hunger clearly threaten our kids. It’s time for the government to help parents in this important battle. With the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, Congress can blunt both edges of this double-edged sword and help to ensure all of our kids a happier, healthier future.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro represents Connecticut’s Third Congressional District and chairs the Agriculture Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.