By MARSHA MERCER
In 1974, the federal supplemental food program known as WIC started providing poor women and their young children whole milk and cheese, cereals and other items. Conspicuous by their absence were fruits and vegetables.
By the 21st century, obesity had replaced malnutrition as a public health problem, and the Institute of Medicine recommended in 2005 upping WIC’s nutritional content by adding fruits and vegetables, whole grain cereals, reduced-fat yogurt and other lower-fat dairy products. It also recommended cutting back on the amount of full-fat dairy. The healthier changes took effect in 2009.
This week we began to see the fruit of those changes. We are gaining ground in the war on childhood obesity
The decline in child obesity rates is small, but the trend is encouraging. After decades of explosive growth, the obesity rate among low-income preschoolers has leveled off nationally and is starting to fall in some states, government researchers reported.
Among children 2 to 4, the obesity rate between 2008 and 2011 dropped in 18 states and the Virgin Islands, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Florida, Georgia and Mississippi were among the states with declines.
The obesity rate for low-income preschoolers increased in only three states -- Colorado, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. And in 20 others and Puerto Rico, the rate was unchanged. These included Alabama and North Carolina. No data was available for 10 states – including Virginia.
Washington typically gets the blame, but this is a moment when the federal government deserves praise for doing something right. Changes in WIC – formally the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – were cited as a major factor in the fight against child obesity.
WIC helps feed more than 9 million poor pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children under 5 a year. It provides nutrition education and referrals to health care and social services and promotes breastfeeding, which may help prevent child obesity, although that’s not certain.
First lady Michelle Obama has been derided for the White House vegetable garden and her Let’s Move! Campaign, but she is leading by example and deserves a shout out. In addition, child care centers around the country, following her lead, have adopted healthier food choices and exercise programs.
The government says simple things like breakfast, playground time and water fountains can help in the childhood obesity fight. Every little bit helps because children who are overweight or obese are five times more likely than normal-weight kids to be overweight or obese as adults and to suffer related health conditions – and higher health care costs.
We still have a long way to go to reverse the obesity trend. One in eight preschoolers is obese, and the problem is worse among black and Hispanic children.
“Obesity remains epidemic,” says Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, but “the tide has begun to turn for some kids in some states. While the changes are small, for the first time in a generation they are going in the right direction."
So, what’s next?
A new study led by Dr. Mark D. DeBoer of the University of Virginia found that little ones, like their older brothers and sisters, gain weight with sugary drinks. Two- to five-year-olds who drank one sugar-sweetened soda, juice or sports drink a day were more likely to be obese than other kids their age who had such drinks less frequently.
No big surprise there, but what are the policy implications? Food stamps – called SNAP – can’t be used for tobacco, alcohol or even soap products. What if SNAP benefits couldn’t buy sugary drinks?
In 2011, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to find out. He asked the federal Department of Agriculture for permission to prohibit purchases of sugary drinks with food stamps. No, the government said, Bloomberg’s request was too broad.
The makers of soft drinks and junk food argue rightly that no one item causes weight gain; it’s a matter of total calories, in and out. They’ve cut back on sugar, salt and package sizes. That’s good for health – and business.
But if we’re serious about improving the nation’s health and cutting health care costs, we should use food stamps to encourage healthy food choices. The new WIC evidence indicates it’s time to give revamping SNAP a try.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.