|First to speak was Tom Colicchio from the show Top Chef. He spoke not only as a chef but also as the son of a mom worked in a school cafeteria and as a father. He spoke of the importance of passing the child nutrition reauthorization. He made a point that really resonated with me about his role as a parent. His kid would gladly eat junk all day. But he's the adult, and he feeds his kid healthy food. There's just no excuse for feeding kids unhealthy food and justifying it as "it's what's they like" (as is often the case in our schools).
Next came Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. This man is a human waste of space and I don't feel the need to go too deeply into what he had to say. It's all basically summed up in this piece called Let Them Eat Broccoli: Poor people don't need more food, they're fat! He tried to drum up all kinds of deficit hysteria and said there was no hard proof that the school lunch program actually works.
Weill from FRAC (the big hunger lobby group) came next. He spoke about the importance of increasing participation in programs like summer meals and school breakfast. School lunch gets pretty good participation, but kids are hungry year round, not just on days when school is in session. FRAC has a new report out on this called Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation if you'd like to read more about it.
Next up, Sanchez of Blue Cross Blue Shield. He really hammered home the true costs of NOT doing anything. He said:
Healthy children are key for national security, economic competitiveness, and to bring down the cost of medical care
He continued with the following statistics:
- Obesity-related medical costs are nearly 10 percent of ALL NATIONAL SPENDING.
- In Texas, the estimated the cost of obesity is $500 per person, per year. The cost of this bill is less than 1/10 the price of obesity in JUST TEXAS over the same period of time.
- 4000 kids and adolescents are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (formerly called adult-onset diabetes) each year.
- Kids eat 30-50% of calories in school.
In other words, pay a little now or pay a lot (and suffer a lot as a nation) later. And if there was a theme to this half of the hearing, THAT was it.
Monroe spoke last. He talked about the Mission Readiness report that I wrote about in a piece called Too Fat to Serve: One in four young adults is too overweight to defend this country. He has three goals:
1. Get junk out of schools
2. Provide healthy food to those who need it.
3. Educate kids and parents about nutrition.
Seems simple enough.
Miller then said that the first people to ask questions would be those who didn't get a chance to do so in the first half of the hearing, beginning with Rep. Scott (D-VA).
Scott asked how will the choice of healthier foods address both hunger and obesity.
Sanchez answered that obesity and hunger are two sides of the same coin. In America, hunger sometimes looks different than it did in the past. You may have a child who outwardly looks overweight but goes a day or two without food. That's because healthy food costs more than unhealthy food. Also, healthy food address BOTH issues, both hunger AND obesity. The same solution is right for both problems.
Scott followed up by asking about the value of direct certification and universal school meals in high poverty areas? (Direct certification means automatically enrolling kids who get other programs like Medicaid or Food Stamps into the lunch program. Universal school meals means skipping the paperwork and just feeding all of the kids in high poverty areas.)
Weill took this one, saying that direct certification helps kids who qualify for school lunch actually get meals without having to fill out excess paperwork. About universal access in high poverty areas, this has been tried in Philadelphia and it worked well and saves money on paperwork and increases participation among eligible children.
Scott then asked an obvious but important question: Is the reimbursement rate sufficient? (The reimbursement rate is the amount the government gives schools for each free lunch given out.)
Weill said no, but this bill takes an important step. And probably the shortfall in reimbursement is greater in breakfast than in lunch. (What he didn't say was that even this bill doesn't really come close to fixing the problem. But six cents is better than zero.)
Rep. Platts (R-PA) was next. He simply said that he's pleased to be a co-sponsor of this bill and he views this as preventative care. We can pay a little now and save a lot later and do right by the kids or we can pay less now and more later and NOT do right by the kids. According to Dr. Sanchez's written testimony, obese kids more likely to miss school, increased risk of a variety of diseases, and if we don't change course this generation will be the first to live sicker and die younger than their parents. He said his main point here is to thank the witnesses for being here. No questions from him.
Rep. Tierney (D-MA) was up next. he asked how many children are in the summer meal program.
Weill took that one. He said that this program has struggled in part because there aren't enough summer activities to provide the food as well as too much paperwork to fill out to get into the program. Only 16 kids get summer meals for every 100 who get school lunch.
He went on to say that the after school meal program currently gives just a snack and so many kids need dinner because they are in daycare for so long. Right now that is happening in a pilot program in 13 states but it needs to be expanded.
Tierney then turned to Rector. He asked him about his point that poor people are fat because they eat too much.
Rector replied that a "promising area to deal with this" is limiting unhealthy food in schools. But, he said, this can be decided at the level of the local school but there's no need for this committee to be the "soft drink czar" for the nation.
The exchange then got a little bit heated when Tierney asked him what he thinks should be done and he refused to give a direct answer. Ultimately he replied that the first thing the government should do is evaluate the effectiveness of current programs. In other words, do nothing. Telling it to "study the issue" is a great way to get the government to do nothing.
Next up, Clarke (D-NY). She wanted to know how a lack of safe exercise places for kids impacts the obesity crisis.
Sanchez replied that there is compelling evidence that it's very valuable to provide kids with safe places to exercise. (I'd add that these safe places should NOT be inside a McDonalds, as they often are.) He added that there's also evidence of the value of access to affordable foods within a neighborhood. In summary, it will take a comprehensive effort to change childhood obesity - kids need both healthy food and movement. Also, to Rep. Platts, he said that we ARE paying for kids' poor diets now through elevated Medicaid costs. Also, healthy lunch can decrease poverty in the long run by helping kids do well in school, graduate, and go on to have careers.
Monroe then spoke about the 1200 people per year are discharged from the military for being obese and out of shape. It costs $50,000 to train someone, so this is $60 million per year we lose by recruiting and training people only to lose them this way.
Kildee (D-MI) came next, focusing on Rector, who said something conservative and stupid.
Miller then took his turn. He had a long exchange with Chef Colicchio, saying that what encourages him about this issue is how many people we involved in the decisions. But a lot of this is about presentation. He noted that as a chef, Colicchio is in the business of presentation and then he threw it open to him for a response.
Colicchio brought up advertising, saying there's a tremendous amount of money that goes into it and schools are starting to mimic fast foods. There's a school of thought saying to get kids to eat more, let's give them what they want, or what we're told they want. But we're adults and we need to start telling kids there's a healthy alternative. Kids will make a good choice if they are given the opportunity. Then he said that the farm bill is another way to address this. Why is it that processed foods are so cheap compared to whole foods? As a lunch lady, he said, his mother was always frustrated that she couldn't get a hold of fresh vegetables and she was forced to use processed foods.
Kline, the Ranking Republican, was next. He complained more about the cost of the bill. He focused his complaints on Weill, who was asking the government to expand a bunch of pilot programs, which meant spending even MORE money. Then he went to Rector, who replied with a long rant about the cost of this bill and the lack of data supporting any of these programs.
McCarthy (D-NY) came next, replying with her own long rant about the necessity of this bill and the money that would be saved in the long run by passing it. She asked Colicchio about his work and about his partnerships to help kids and improve school meals.
Colicchio told her how the First lady brought chefs to south lawn and asked them to go to schools and start educating and to start working with local farms. He brought up the importance of using farms to educate kids on how food is grown. He also spoke about the great results of pilot programs with universal classroom breakfast in New York. He said that this helps kids be more attentive, fewer visits to principal for behavior, etc.
Then McCarthy asked Sanchez about data, to disprove the crap that Rector had been spewing.
GT Thompson (R-PA) was up last. He asked Monroe what parents should do.
Monroe said that parents need to be educated too. The military has a lot of broken bones in basic training because of recruits come from backgrounds with a lack of exercise and nutritious meals. Then, he reflected, unfortunately we allow fast food restaurants on military bases, and we have allowed that type of food into the dining halls. (Kinda funny that the military rejects people for being overweight and then serves junk food on its own bases. And not funny in a haha sort of way.)
So that was the hearing. They plan to mark up the bill soon after they return from the July 4 recess. Stay tuned for more on this bill in the near future.