Feds Tackle Childhood Obesity

Agencies are calling for self-regulation, and beverage companies have agreed to ban sales of soft drinks in schools as states receive failing grade for physical education.

The issue of childhood obesity and what to do about it is gathering steam, and while two federal agencies have issued a report calling on the food industry to make improvements without federal mandates, the nation’s major beverage companies have agreed to stop selling soft drinks in schools
Those developments both came in early May when a report card was issued assessing state physical education requirements for kids. Most states received a failing grade.
All of that happened as Snack Food Association-supported organization, PE4Life, celebrated National PE Day in Washington D.C. and sent educators, businessmen and famous athletes to Capitol Hill lobbying for legislation to encourage more PE programs in schools.
Thus, momentum appears to be building behind efforts to encourage children to eat healthier diets and exercise more, efforts that can certainly influence the food industry.
The Feds Weigh In
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a report early in May recommending that the food industry take steps to help curtail childhood obesity.
A product of a joint FTC/HHS workshop last summer where industry, consumer, academic and government stakeholders examined the private sector’s role in addressing rising childhood obesity rates, the report noted that since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled among adolescents and doubled among younger children. Participants in last summer’s workshop acknowledged that many factors contribute to childhood obesity and recognized that responsible marketing can influence children’s diets and exercise behavior.
“Responsible, industry-generated action and effective self-regulation are critical to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity,” said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. “The FTC plans to monitor industry efforts closely, and we expect to see real improvements.”
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt added, “Businesses need to work with mothers, fathers and children to bring America’s epidemic of childhood overweight under control. Families can help children to be physically active and to eat right, and businesses can encourage children to eat nutritious foods in proper portions.”
SFA President Jim McCarthy said SFA welcomes the report, pointing out that the snack food industry is taking many of the steps recommended by the agencies, including encouraging reformulation of products, providing calorie-controlled packaging and promoting balanced diets and physical exercise.
Agency Recommendations
The agencies recommended that food companies do the following:
• Intensify efforts to create new products and reformulate existing products to make them lower in calories, more nutritious, more appealing to children and more convenient to prepare and eat;
• Help consumers control calories through smaller portions, single-serving packages and other packaging cues.
• Explore labeling initiatives, including icons and seals, to identify lower-calorie, nutritious foods clearly and in a manner that does not mislead consumers.
• Review and revise marketing practices with the goal of improving the overall nutritional profile of foods marketed to children. This could be done by adopting minimum nutritional standards for the foods marketed to children or by shifting emphasis to lower-calorie, more nutritious products.
• Generally explore ways to improve efforts to educate consumers about nutrition and fitness with simple and effective messages.
• Review and revise their policies to improve the overall nutritional profile of the products they market and sell in schools.
• Make a concerted effort to include, as part of their marketing of more nutritious, lower-calorie foods, promotions tailored to ethnic groups with high incidence of childhood obesity.
The agencies said they will closely monitor industry progress in implementing the recommendations contained in the report, and in the future, one or both of the agencies will issue a follow-up report assessing the progress that industry has made.
In addition, the FTC is conducting a study on the nature and extent of food marketing techniques directed at children and adolescents. Information on good nutrition for kids can be found on the HHS Web site at http://www.hhs.gov/kids.
Soft Drink Agreement
On May 3, the nation’s top three soft drink companies announced they will start removing sweetened drinks from school cafeterias and vending machines beginning this fall. The move comes as numerous state legislatures consider proposals to limit sale of such drinks and other food products that do not meet specific health requirements.
For example, the Connecticut legislature has voted to ban all sodas, including diet drinks and sports drinks, in its schools. New York City schools allow only low-fat milk, water and 100% fruit juice.
Under the agreement between beverage makers and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, students in elementary schools would be served only bottled water, low-fat and nonfat milk, and 100% fruit juice in servings no larger than 8 oz. Middle school serving limits would be 10 oz., and in high school, low-calorie juice drinks, sports drinks and diet services would be permitted in servings up to 12 oz.
“This is a voluntary policy, but I think schools will want to follow it,” said Susan K. Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, in a New York Times article.  The agreement includes parochial and private school contracts, affecting about 35 million public school children. It would apply to extended school functions, but not to events likely to be attended by parents, such as evening school plays or interscholastic sports. An additional 15 million students attend schools that now operate under stricter regulations where the guidelines would not apply, according to The New York Times.
The Alliance is a collaboration between the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. The terms were accepted by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Inc. and Cadbury Schweppes, which combined control more than 90% of school sales. The new standards are expected to be in place in 75% of schools by the summer of 2008 and in all schools by 2009.
Fighting for PE
Meanwhile, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) and the American Heart Association (AHA) released the latest Shape of the Nation Report.
“This report shows that state physical education requirements are extremely weak,” declared NASPE President Jacalyn Lund of Georgia State University. “Furthermore, a vast array of ‘loopholes,’ such as exemptions, waivers and online physical education classes, too often eradicate those minimal standards at the local level at a time when more and more children are obese or at risk of obesity.”
McCarthy noted that SFA strongly supports efforts to encourage children to exercise and eat a balanced diet. In fact, the day the FTC/HHS report was issued, SFA was participating in National PE Day activities. SFA Vice President Chris Clark attended a May 2 fundraiser and dinner to support PE4Life efforts to win approval of legislation that would provide grants to local school districts for athletic equipment and to hire and train teachers for innovative physical education programs.
On May 3, supporters of the legislation, including sports stars Hershel Walker, Kellen Winslow, Bill Russell, Archie Manning and Antwaan Randle-El and George Mason University head basketball coach Jim Larranaga, made the rounds on Capitol Hill urging congressional approval.