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Child nutrition at forefront for schools, leaders

Updated: April 19, 2011 4:54AM

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns from Tony Stanford related to child nutrition, healthy food accessibility and the painful issue of hunger.

In the tradition of our nation’s first ladies, first lady Michelle Obama is championing an issue important to our country. When Mrs. Obama kicked off her “Let’s Move” initiative with an ambitious aim of ending child obesity in a generation, it sparked instant attention.

From the aggressively touted White House vegetable garden to partnering with people like Food Network star Rachael Ray, the first lady has called for federal action to end childhood obesity.

Grounded in an urgent need to improve the nutritional health of all Americans, Mrs. Obama has sown the seeds of enthusiasm by advocating for an increase in funding for child nutrition programs.

The initiative comes not a moment too soon, as one out of three American children are overweight or obese. Yet many Americans don’t have a clue how local school lunch and breakfast programs are affected by governmental funding. Or that it has the potential to literally improve the health and lives of our children.

News that the number of Americans living in poverty has climbed to an unprecedented 14.3 percent and rising exponentially in Illinois makes understanding the importance of federally funded nutrition programs essential.

The first lady’s passion, Ray’s star power and dedication, plus an army of devoted advocates are getting behind the single most important method of reducing the growing health risk to our children’s nutrition.

With the help of influential child nutrition supporters such as U.S. Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Richard Durbin supporting child nutrition programs, reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act could happen later this year.

For now, the president has signed a Continuing Resolution that provides continued funding for all programs authorized by the Child Nutrition Act, including the School Lunch Program.

Illinois 14th District Congressman Bill Foster said, “As the proud parent of two children who attended public schools in the 14th District, I know the importance of the school lunch program and overall child nutrition. With one in three children considered obese in our country, I hope we can pass the reauthorization of the child nutrition bill when Congress comes back into session to ensure that our children have access to well-balanced, nutritional meals.”

Reauthorization of the act is required every five years, and if approved, it could expand funding for free school meals at breakfast, after school and during the summer.

Andrew Kaplan, director of special projects for Rachael Ray said, “The child nutrition bill is one of the single most important bills waiting for Congress to act on right now. It impacts all American children, especially those who rely on school food programs for their daily nutrition. As Rachael says, “we can pay a little now, or pay more later.”

It’s a mouthful, but the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act authorizes all federal school meals and child nutrition programs, as well as providing funding to ensure that low-income children have access to healthy and nutritious foods.

Experts agree that a direct correlation exists between obesity, hunger, self esteem and the ability to learn. So, for millions of children this important legislation goes a long way to helping improve their educational achievement, economic security, nutrition and health.

Another thing that authorities tend to agree on is that the real challenge is to create and sustain healthier school environments that promote good nutrition and physical activity. Unfortunately, it has taken an epidemic of childhood obesity, diabetes and a host of related health problems to give momentum and attention to the issue.

Ray’s Yum-O initiative is aimed at moving children away from highly processed foods and toward healthier eating habits.

Ray’s down-to-earth stance on improving child nutrition is sobering. “The food America’s children eat in schools is so important because it’s an opportunity to really level the playing field, no matter what socioeconomic background a kid comes from. When children are in school, they can have access to good nutrition, if we the adults provide it for them. For far too many children, school food is the only access they will have to a healthy nutritious meal, period,” Ray said.”

Mrs. Obama has said, “No one gets off the hook on this one — from governments to schools, corporations to nonprofits, all the way down to families sitting around their dinner table.”

So if you’re not already involved, there’s no better time to jump in than during National School Lunch Week, which is officially recognized Oct. 10 to 16. During the weeklong observation, national and local campaigns that affect America’s schoolchildren will be in the spotlight.

It’s a monumental effort that will require recalibrating our perceptions about food, the combined energy of parents, children and food manufacturers to plan and implement strategies that support health nutrition.

One of the programs having tremendous impact on child nutrition is the USDA’s Healthier US School Challenge, according to Julie Mikkelson, regional director, Special Nutrition Programs, USDA Food and Nutrition Service Midwest Region.

Mikkelson, whose agency sponsors the program, hopes to recognize two Fox Valley schools that are currently working toward achieving the USDA Healthier US School Challenge later this school year.

“(HUSSC) is a voluntary initiative for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program,” said Mikkleson, a nutrition expert who also is an Oswego resident. “It supports first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign by recognizing schools that are creating healthier school environments through their promotion of good nutrition and physical activity. The initiative encourages all schools to take a leadership role in helping students to make healthier eating and physical activity choices that will last a lifetime.”

Anthony Stanford is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Contact him at or on Facebook.

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