Opinion

Feds fighting obesity

The federal government no doubt can play a useful role in trying to reduce child obesity, but a recent review indicates current programs aren't working. Any new approaches need to start from the premise that kids learn their eating habits at home.

A recent review of 57 federal nutrition programs found mostly failure in reducing obesity levels among the targeted groups of children. The programs focused on teaching school children healthy eating habits and the benefits of adding more fruits and vegetables to their daily diets.

Tactics included offering free fruits and vegetables with school lunches, offering prizes to children who ate fruits and vegetables, and lively lessons about how healthy eating can make you feel better. All in all, the federal government will spend more than $1 billion this year on these programs.

At first glance, this approach seems logical. Health workers can reach thousands of children at their schools and use the school cafeteria as a laboratory to change behavior. But the results show this approach has had little success in changing the way young people eat. While some children are enthusiastic participants as the programs are under way, they soon revert to old eating habits.

Unfortunately, these programs may be reaching children too late, after their eating preferences are well established. To effect real change, health officials must alter the eating habits of families in the home, where children are conditioned from infancy to eat certain foods.

Using education alone to change what's on the family dinner table is likely to be as unsuccessful as trying to change children's diets. But the government has other options.

Recent research indicates that the most reliable predictor of obesity is family income. To some degree, that is because the structure of the marketplace encourages lower-income families to load up on inexpensive processed foods and soft drinks rather than more expensive fresh foods. And the federal government plays a role in that choice.

Many processed foods contain byproducts of corn, soybeans, wheat and milk, whose production is subsidized by the government. For example, high-fructose corn syrup is the major sweetener in hundreds of products and one of the prime contributors to obesity. And because of government subsidies, the cost of those products is significantly reduced.

One way to promote healthier eating habits would be policy changes that make fresh produce competitive in price with processed foods. That might include lowering federal subsidies for corn, raising subsidies for locally produced fresh foods or a combination of the two.

The only way children are going to learn to like fresh fruits and vegetables and make them a part of their daily diet is if they find those foods on their plates as toddlers. If healthy eating isn't part of a family tradition, public health officials will have a hard time changing the eating habits of America's school children.

If the government wants to improve family diets, it shouldn't be subsidizing junk food.

IN SUMMARY

The federal government needs a new approach to promoting better eating habits.

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