Fighting Childhood Obesity & Malnutrition with the Child Nutrition Act

July 16, 2009

Rochelle Davis, Founding Executive Director

As many of our regular readers know, Healthy Schools Campaign is closely following the political debate around the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.  This Act funds the school food programs that feed low-income children around the country.

The recent report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America 2009” underscores the need to make changes to the school food program so that school districts around the country have the resources to provide students with healthier meals, giving students the nutrition they need to learn and succeed at school – and to live healthy lives. 

The federal food program began more than 60 years ago to address the fact that so many children were underweight and malnourished. The crisis facing us today is both the same and different: now children are overweight and malnourished. 

I think that it is difficult;for most of us to associate being overweight with;being malnourished. In a recent article, Dr. Cyril O. Enwonwu  does an excellent job of explaining this contradiction of our modern age. Enwonwu is a professor of biomedical sciences and director of International Research Initiatives at the University of Maryland, adjunct professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the UM School of Medicine, and a Research!America Ambassador. He explains:

Take a 14-year-old African-American boy living in Baltimore. Like many Americans, he eats too much junk food, while watching hours of television or playing video games. He knows he is obese. What he doesn’t know is that his body is starving for omega–3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals required for good development and health.

Now take a 14-year-old boy from Nigeria. He has poor, uneducated parents and has to share a small bowl of rice and legumes with his three siblings every day. He walks several miles to school daily, often in intense heat. He is emaciated and frequently endures pangs of hunger. For Nigerian children like this, malnutrition usually starts before they are born due to poor prenatal care.

They are an ocean apart, yet both boys suffer from malnutrition, ranging from undernutrition with resulting short stature and below normal weight for the Nigerian to overconsumption of high-fat foods with little or no exercise leading to obesity for the American. Research tells us that both of these forms of malnutrition weaken a person’s defenses against various infections and make one more prone to diseases, including measles, malaria, tuberculosis, respiratory and diarrheal diseases, HIV/AIDS and some cancers.

When Congress begins to consider the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this year, I hope that they will provide school districts with the resources to address children’s needs for proper nutrition so they can grow up to become healthy and productive adults. 

Learn more about the Child Nutrition Act and how you can take action against childhood obesity and malnutrition.