THE BLOG

New USDA Nutrition Guidelines Could Help Children Reclaim Their Childhoods

10/12/2012 02:25 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2012

Like many families across the country, mine struggles with obesity and related illnesses such as Type II diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. The situation has been so bad that both my grandmother and aunt died relatively young due to heart attacks. My mother has already been diagnosed with type II diabetes and I have a teenage cousin who weighs 300 pounds -- a health risk flagged by his doctor.

Sadly, our family is not alone. It is estimated that close to 40 percent of Latino children are overweight or obese, putting them at higher risk of developing chronic diseases and being overweight or obese as adults and developing other complications, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. It is such an issue in our community that in a survey by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, Latino parents listed obesity (44 percent) over lack of exercise (38 percent) and drug abuse (38 percent) as the biggest health concern facing children.

The subject of obesity shouldn't be taboo. We need to talk about its causes and what we can do as a society to address it because it is killing us. An example of a way to take action is regulating easy access to cheap junk food at schools. This is a vital step that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken by making healthy foods a priority for school meals.

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was enacted to provide healthier foods and beverages in schools. The law charged the USDA with updating nutrition standards for the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs. Hence, starting this fall, kids began to see more whole grains, fruits and vegetables in their school cafeterias. For example, a typical lunch is whole grain spaghetti with meat sauce, broccoli, fat-free or low-fat milk and kiwi. Another day, they may have a chef salad, whole wheat pretzel, cooked corn, baby carrots, low-fat dressing, bananas and fat-free or low-fat milk. It is an amazing improvement in school meals to protect our children's health.

Access to healthy foods in our schools make a world of difference in the lives of our children. A study by the research and policy group Bridging the Gap found that overweight or obese 5th graders who lived in states with laws that restrict the sale of unhealthy snacks and beverages in schools are less likely to remain overweight or obese by the 8th grade compared to their peers in states without these laws.

This makes sense. Children spend a significant part of their day in school. In fact, children consume 35 percent to 50 percent of their total daily calories in school, according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In my cousin's case, he lives in a single-parent household in rural Pennsylvania. His mother is stretched thin, working at night at a hospital and shuttling her children during the day to afterschool activities. Not having to worry about what her son is eating at school is indeed an immense relief.

Families across the country can now rest assure that our children will have access to nutritious foods in our schools to combat child obesity. The USDA has finally mandated to provide more food options that are low in fat, calories, and added sugars and to include more of the good stuff like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods. It is now up to us to do the rest by promoting regular physical activity in our communities. Let's do it for our children. Let's do it for a healthy community.