The end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 saw significant developments—mostly positive but some negative—in nutrition policy affecting children’s health. From new school meal requirements to food marketing guidelines to evidence supporting the effectiveness of sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes, the landscape of nutrition policy affecting children’s health has been changing in important ways.

School Nutrition Standards: Would You Like (Sweet Potato) Fries with That?
First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the new standards for school meals on January 25 in the form of a final rule, marking the first substantial changes to school meals in 15 years. The standards, a product of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, have drawn significant public attention. People have strong feelings about school meals, as evidenced by the nearly 132,000 public comments the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) received on the issue.

On the whole, the new standards promise to significantly improve the nutritional value of meals served in schools. Some positive developments in the final rule include:

  • • An increase in the amounts of fruits and vegetables served every day
  • • An increase in the amount of whole grains served
  • • A requirement to provide only no- and low-fat milk options
  • • A requirement to reduce the amounts of sodium, trans fat and saturated fat
  • • A requirement to focus portion sizes to reflect appropriate calorie amounts for children based on age
Despite these positive improvements, some important provisions were removed from the initial proposed rule (after Congress required this), which is disappointing. These include limiting the USDA’s ability to regulate the amount of starchy vegetables provided in school lunches as well as preventing the USDA from increasing the amount of tomato paste required in order to allow it to count as a vegetable serving within the new framework.

These changes will have a significant impact, as nearly 32 million children participate in school meal programs every day. The new standards will be phased in over a three-year period, starting in the 2012 to 2013 school year. To see what a sample elementary school lunch menu could look like both before and after the new standards take effect, click here.

Voluntary Food Marketing Principles: Further Setbacks or Ronald McDonald is Here to Stay
On a less positive note, important progress toward the development of voluntary principles for marketing food to children came to a standstill at the end of 2011. The voluntary guidelines, developed by an Interagency Working Group (or IWG, consisting of the Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and USDA) have received enormous criticism from the food and beverage industry. Initial opposition to the voluntary guidelines in October resulted in a narrowing focus to reduce advertising targeted at children under the age of 12 rather than all children under the age of 17 and provided exemptions for holiday promotions and established marketing characters. Further setbacks occurred in December when Congress required the IWG to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed guidelines, significantly delaying finalization of the proposal. At this stage, the ultimate fate of the guidelines remains unclear at best.
New Article Adds Further Evidence to Support Taxation of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
A new article published in Health Affairs adds to the overwhelming evidence that supports the idea of SSB excise taxes as a key public health measure aimed at addressing obesity. The study authors found that a penny-per-ounce excise tax on SSBs would reduce SSB consumption by 15 percent for adults ages 25 to 64 and a 1.5 percent reduction in obese adults as a result. From 2010 to 2020, the study projected that this decrease in consumption would prevent 26,000 premature deaths while avoiding over $17 billion in medical expenses. While this study focused on adults, it’s consistent with a previous report by the USDA that has demonstrated the similarly positive health benefits for both children and adults resulting from SSB excise taxes.

It’s exciting that addressing child health through nutrition policy is being seen as a major priority. Now, it’s up to child health advocates to continue to educate policymakers about the importance of this issue to keep it front and center amidst a range of competing priorities in the coming months.

—Patrick M. Tigue, Senior Policy Analyst and Kyle Bogaert, Intern, New England Alliance for Children’s Health