Coronavirus-related expansions to federal programs should stay in place

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A good thing may have come out of the pandemic… more children have access to healthy food.

Whether this continues remains in question.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, US policies have changed, allowing better access to healthy food for families who need it most.

The changes have the potential to make a difference in childhood obesity rates in the United States, which has been difficult for communities, according to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

However, only if the changes stay in place for the long term.

The foundation is a non-profit organization committed to improving health and equity in the United States. He strives to create a culture that provides every individual with a fair and equitable opportunity to thrive, no matter who they are, where they live or how much income they have, according to the report, “From Crisis to Crisis. opportunity: reform our nation’s policies to help all children grow up healthy.

Jamie Bussel, author of the report, pointed out that the pandemic has prompted governments to change their policies so that revenues can support healthy communities.

“Schools provide free, healthy meals to all children, whether they are open for in-person learning or operate virtually,” she wrote in the report. “Families face fewer barriers to enrolling in nutritional assistance programs and using their benefits. Policymakers have increased monthly benefit levels in nutrition programs and are offering child tax credits to help families meet the needs of their children.

Kelsey Chrisman, who as Jefferson City’s Healthy Schools Coordinator helps children make healthy eating and activity decisions, said the pandemic has deeply challenged the district to keep children active and well fed.

“We had to get a lot of support online,” Chrisman said. “It’s really tough every time you’re in this line of work. “

Jefferson City managed to keep the students in class. However, during the brunt of the pandemic, a large percentage of children remained at home.

The separation took a toll on the students, but also affected the adults who work with them, she said.

Federal changes, if left in place, have the potential to significantly reduce child hunger and poverty, Bussel pointed out.

“We need to think bigger and bolder about permanent solutions that will strengthen our country’s policies and extend support to children and families in the long term.”

Experts, according to the report, expected the pandemic to exacerbate food insecurity for some Americans. They predicted an increase in childhood obesity as soon as it started. Children stayed at home and often did not have access to healthy meals like those they received in school.

The pandemic has also affected other determinants of health, such as family income, housing and access to health care.

“As we continue to fight the pandemic, we must ensure that federal programs such as school meals, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and children (WIC), prioritize equity and health – and reach as many eligible children, ”the report says. “We also need to look upstream and address this issue more broadly with far-reaching changes that make our food, housing, education, employment and health systems more just, fairer and more sustainable.”

Long-term efforts to reduce childhood obesity will require public-private partnerships, the report suggests.

The latest nationally available data (50 states plus the District of Columbia) from 2019 to 2020, shows the obesity rate among children aged 10 to 17 to be 16.2%. The rate remained stable for about five years, according to the report.

Missouri’s rate for the age group was 19.6 percent, which was the 11th highest.

The rates do not yet show significant changes associated with the pandemic; However, several studies indicate that the pandemic could be contributing to rising obesity rates.

A study of 2019-2020 clinic visits in the Philadelphia area found that the obesity rate in children ages 12 to 17 fell from 13.7% to 15.4%. A similar study in California found that the rate of overweight or obese children aged 5 to 11 was 36.2% before the pandemic, but the rate rose to 45.7% during the pandemic.

One barrier for children, the report points out, is that beverage companies market their sugary products to children in the same way the tobacco industry once marketed its products to tobacco users.

“For years, beverage companies have been marketing in schools, hiring athletes and music stars, and advertising in traditional and digital media to promote sugary drinks to children,” the report says. report. “Black and Latin children have been disproportionately targeted. These efforts are strikingly similar to the tactics used by tobacco companies to make young people addicted to their products. “

Food and beverage companies also engaged in activities that were “at the heart of the tobacco industry’s strategy” – funding research that promotes their products, funding lobbying efforts, and securing contracts to place marketing. prominently in places like schools and sporting events.

The report offers a number of policy recommendations (regarding school meals) to improve childhood obesity outcomes.

• These include making universal school meals permanent (meaning that all students have the right to free meals) and providing resources that ensure that every child has access to a constant source of healthy meals. Data shows that in the fiscal year ending in 2020, 76.9% of meals served in schools in the United States were free or discounted. And 30 million children have participated in the National School Lunch Program. The report recommends that the United States continue with universal free school meals after the pandemic, when relaxed rules allowed schools to serve free meals (breakfast and lunch) to all children.

• The US Department of Agriculture should continue to strengthen nutritional standards for school meals, with a particular focus on reducing added sugars in meals.

• USDA should increase the reimbursement rate it offers to schools so that they can afford healthier choices.

• Congress should increase funding for healthy meals.

• Local, state and federal governments should work together to ensure that drinking and cooking water is available in all schools, and include testing for lead in cafeteria water and tap water.

• Congress strengthened its WIC program during the early stages of the pandemic. It committed about $ 1 billion in additional revenue to improve WIC participants’ access to nutritious food (while allowing them to avoid in-person clinic visits), according to the report.

Federal relief laws have increased flexibility by allowing newly eligible mothers to register virtually, allowing food package substitutions when WIC-approved versions are not available, and allowing more widespread use of the technology. telehealth to provide nutrition education and breastfeeding supports, ”the report says.

The American Rescue Plan Act has increased monthly fruit and vegetable benefits up to $ 35 per child and adult each month. The law sets aside an additional $ 390 million to modernize and promote the WIC program through September 30, 2024.

Data shows that the program served 4.1 million children and 1.9 million infants in 2018.

The foundation recommends that the current waivers that allow more families to access the WIC remain in place.


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