An alarming 40 percent of children who are at risk to become or already are overweight. We’re even seeing children suffering from so-called “adult diseases” related to obesity, and many of these same kids report a lower quality of life than even children with cancer.
Along with the programs out there for adults, there are several designed for kids, one of which has a powerful mentor in Washington and some dedicated disciples right here in Iowa.
Burgmaier: According to the New York Times, one in six American children are overweight, and increasing numbers of those kids are developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes, a condition that until a few years ago was found almost only in adults. If current trends continue, the centers for disease control and prevention predicts that 30 to 40 percent of today’s children will have diabetes in their lifetimes.
Harkin: It just cries out to us to do something about changing the way that we promote foods, the way that we advertise, especially with young people, how they start learning what to eat at an early stage in their life.
Burgmaier: Senator Tom Harkin is considered a leader in federal efforts to combat the obesity epidemic. “Assignment Iowa” spoke with the Senator by satellite. While Harkin promotes wellness and healthy habits among adults and children, the state he represents is not fairing so well. Nearly two-thirds of Iowans are considered overweight or obese.
One of the ways the Senator is helping with this growing concern is by authoring the Harkin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program, which provides free fresh fruits and vegetables to children in schools.
Harkin: The teachers love it. The kids love it. The parents love it. It's providing good nutrition to kids when they get – you know, when they kind of get hungry in the morning or in the afternoon. They get the growlies; instead of eating cookies and sugar and things like that, they get fresh fruit or fresh vegetables. It helps them study better too, so it's been a great success.
Burgmaier: Implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service and as part of the 2002 Farm Bill, the $6 million pilot program provided grants to 25 schools in each of six states and one Native American territory. Each school used the funds to purchase its choice of healthy snacks. In 2004 congress made the program permanent, and today eight states, including Iowa, and three Indian reservations participate in the Harkin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
Fisher: I'll eat an apple occasionally instead of like something else, like a chip or something.
Corbin: The grapples, I didn't know that they could do that with taking a grape and apple and putting them together.
Burgmaier: Do you have some favorites that you really find yourself going to now?
Corbin: The grapes. I really like the grapes.
Burgmaier: On average, children get less than half of the daily amount of fruits and vegetables recommended by the 2005 U.S. dietary guidelines. According to Teresa Nece, Food and Nutrition Director for Des Moines Public Schools, Des Moines has been fortunate enough to have 4 of its 59 schools participate in Harkin’s program during the past five years. Harding Middle School is one such example.
Nece: One of the benefits of the program is the fact that students have access to those fresh fruits and vegetables from the beginning of the day until the end of the day. And as a result of that, students who may not choose to eat breakfast at home or at school, in that classroom will still have access to something very nourishing. And there are studies out there that show the reality of improved testing as students make sure they are well fed, ready, and that makes that child ready to learn.
Christensen: It's one of the most wonderful opportunities that we've ever had for our students. We are a school of high poverty, and so for many of our students when we started this program, they had never had fresh fruit because it's so expensive.
Burgmaier: Donna Christensen, principal at Harding Middle School, says the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program has become an integral part of the school day and says it has enhanced the school environment. Christensen says in addition to students increasing their consumption of fresh produce, this helped decrease their consumption of candy, chips, and other less healthy snacks, so much so that the school decided to get rid of its vending machines because students weren’t buying the products. She says this is just one of the many ways her school has benefited from the program.
Christensen: This is -- this is just a win/win. We have healthier children. We have children that are able to concentrate more. As adults and students, we are eating healthier and we think about it, we talk about it. All those things carry over.
Nece: In my twenty plus years in nutrition programs, it's probably one of the most positive things I’ve ever seen happen because the students have gone home with the nutrition messages and have actually encouraged families to try different fruits and vegetables.
Burgmaier: While the battle to end the rising obesity epidemic continues, the Harkin Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is a step in the right direction, but it’s only one part of a healthy lifestyle. Physical activity is just as important.
Harkin: If we're going to have No Child Left Behind in terms of their intellectual achievements, how about leaving no child behind in terms of their health and well being?