5 Reasons I’m Optimistic about Child Nutrition in America

First Lady Michelle Obama has done more for childhood nutrition in the past month than food advocates have seen in years! With the recent anniversary of her Let’s Move campaign, a slew of positive legislation is being pushed through with lots of help from the First Lady. But the folks in Washington aren’t the only ones prioritizing childhood nutrition. Below are signs from all across the country that the food landscape for kids is turning a corner.

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Image via Obama Foodorama

1. Universal Free Meals: Schools can opt to offer universal free meals to all students, regardless of income, at schools in which at least 40% of students are eligible for free meals through the National School Lunch Program. In schools that have at least 65% of students eligible for free meals, the universal free model is actually cost neutral! This program puts an end to the stigma of being eligible for free meals, students being turned away from lack of funds, and the burdensome paperwork associated with the tiered system.

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Lunch in DC public schools: Chicken Quesadilla on Whole Wheat Tortilla, Black Beans, Salsa, Local Apple & Milk, by DC Central Kitchen (image via CSPI)

2. Limit on junk food marketing: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Michelle Obama to announce the USDA’s proposed rule for School Wellness policy, which includes a first-ever component that bans unhealthy marketing on school grounds. This means phasing out on-campus advertising of soda and junk food on scoreboards, vending machines, menu posters, cups and plates, and more. What is considered junk food? The proposal uses the same guidelines in USDA’s Smart Snacks in School rule, which includes limits on total calories, sugar, salt and fat, and requires healthier ingredients, like whole grain and low-fat dairy.

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Self-serve fruit at Ashland public schools in MA (image via CSPI)

3. Healthy food marketing gets a boost: Vegetable companies (including Bird’s Eye and Bolthouse Farms) are venturing into the healthy food marketing by using tactics such as extreme ads (think Mountain Dew-style) and partnerships with Disney to tempt youngsters into eating their veggies. Additionally, the First Lady announced a commitment from Subway introducing their “pile on the veggies campaign”. This effort will focus on increasing consumption of fruits of vegetables among children, and will set nutrition parameters for what can be offered on the children’s menu. That being said, food companies (Subway included) can still be counted on to push unhealthy foods, but a targeted healthy food marketing campaign is a much needed step in the right direction.

Bolthouse Farms

Bolthouse Farms takes a cue from junk food purveyors in this ad for baby carrots (image via NPR)

4. Students eat more produce: A study from the Harvard School of Public Health found a 23% increase in fruit consumption and a 16% increase in vegetable consumption after the new school nutrition guidelines were introduced in 2012. Contrary to popular belief, the study did NOT find a corresponding increase in food waste.

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Lunch from Saint Paul public schools (image via CSPI)

5. Obesity rates for young children may be dropping: According to a major federal health survey, obesity rates for 2-5 year olds have dropped by a whopping 43% in the past decade. While skeptics are wary that a drop this large is a statistical fluke, this potential drop is the first sign evidence that we may be turning a corner in the obesity epidemic. Let the public health efforts continue!

– Kelly

P.S. To learn more about the school lunch program, see here.

Female Food Heroes: 9 Women Shaking Up our Food System

1. Michelle Obama

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Through the “Let’s Move” Initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama has been a relentless voice in championing healthy habits. It is inspiring to see one of the most public figures in America devote herself to such a noble cause, addressing not only the American public, but the food industry as well. I am particularly impressed by her September 18th address on food marketing to children (check it out here).

2. Marion Nestle

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Marion Nestle is my absolute favorite voice in the nutrition and food systems arena. While not a Registered Dietitian, this NYU nutrition professor and public health expert has a no-nonsense interpretation of nutrition science that simply can’t be argued with. Her bluntness is refreshing, and she has no problem pointing fingers when talking about the culprits of obesity. Marion Nestle has written several insightful books, and I am completely addicted to her blog, foodpolitics.com.

3. Kathleen Marrigan

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Kathleen Marrigan has been a champion of organic and local foods from the very beginning. In fact, her MIT dissertation became the basis of the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act. In 2010, Time Magazine named Kathleen Marrigan as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.¬† She has held various positions for the US Department of Agriculture throughout her career, including most recently the Deputy Secretary (a post from which she retired in March of 2013). During her time there, she managed the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, and worked tirelessly to strengthen the American food system. Oh yea, and she’s a longhorn (hook ’em!).

4. Frances Moore Lappe

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In 1971, 27 year old Frances Moore Lappe wrote the book on sustainable diets. Literally. In Diet for a Small Planet, she made made waves by re-framing world hunger as a problem of distribution, not a problem of production. Since then, she has authored or co-authored 17 other books related to world hunger and living democracies, and has co-founded 3 organizations (Food First, the Small Planet Institute, and the Small Planet Fund). Her enthusiasm has been an inspiration to numerous activists over the years, and I am proud to be a new member of the Small Planet Institute team.

5. Anna Lappe

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Anna Blythe Lappe is the daughter of Frances Moore Lappe, and was also a co-founder of the Small Planet Institute. Anna has written multiple books, including the recent publication, Diet for a Hot Planet. She is also an advocate for “real food” and sustainable food systems (causes near and dear to my heart!) Check out her TED talk on food marketing to children here.

6. Alice Waters

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When people search for the beginning of the local food revolution, many people point to Chef Alice Waters. Since the 1971 opening of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters has shown consumers the magic of local, seasonal food, as well as helping chefs and other members of the food system see that eating locally and seasonally is not only possible, but profitable as well. In 1996 Alice expanded her reach into children’s food and nutrition education by founding the Edible Schoolyard Project.

7. Ann Cooper

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Chef Ann Cooper, aka the Renegade Lunch Lady, is working hard to show our kids what healthy, delicious food looks like. Reforming the National School lunch program is a HUGE challenge! (I would know, I spent 6 weeks managing an elementary school cafeteria). So I applaud Ann for acting not only as a role model in her own school district, but as a consultant and advocate as well.

8. Ellie Krieger

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“To get people to eat well, don’t say a word about health. Just cook fantastic food for them”- Ellie Krieger

Ellie Krieger is a Registered Dietitian, television chef, James Beard Award winning cookbook author, and consultant to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-obesity initiative. With her recipes, Ellie Krieger proves that healthy eating is not a punishment, and that choosing health does not mean sacrificing taste. It’s exciting to see RDs become public figures and have the opportunity to model healthy behaviors!

9. Vandana Shiva

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Located in India, Dr. Vandana Shiva is a world renowned expert on agriculture and food systems. She started started research and advocacy organization Navdanya “to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming”. A relentless advocate for environmental activism and biodiversity, Dr. Vandana Shiva has also authored numerous books.

That’s my list! I would have loved to feature 10 women (because 10 is a nice, even number) but these were the main ones that came to mind. Any ideas?

– Kelly

P.S. For photo credits, click the image.