A Food Systems Approach to Addressing Childhood Obesity

Photo from Jamie Lantzy.

Friendly reminder, Ecocentrists: the public voting period for the Apps for Healthy Kidscompetition ends tomorrow (July 14 ) at 12:00pm EDT!  For those who're unfamiliar, the competition challenges technophiles to develop software tools and games that lead children to eat better and become more physically active - it's part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to solve the problem of childhood obesity.  Though the utility of the apps submitted to the contest varies, it's a good project.

Of course, back when I was a youngster, we didn't have "apps," smartphones, "magical and revolutionary" tablet computers or any other personal electronic devices, for that matter.  In those simpler times, we were compelled to maintain good health by eating our vegetables, playing outside in the dirt and walking 37 miles to school through blizzards and dust storms ["Hmmmff! Kids these days!" mutters Crotchety Old Man Chris].

The fundamental problem is that this system is structured in such a way that nutrient-poor junk calories are cheap, abundant and ubiquitous while healthful foods are expensive, comparatively scarce and often inaccessible - i.e., it's easier and cheaper to buy a soda than a vegetable.

But times have changed.  By no fault of today's youth, US society has become increasingly obesogenic ("characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity"), resulting in an alarming trend toward staggering rates of obesity.  Currently, about 33% of adults and 17% of children are obese - and the rate of childhood obesity is increasing three times faster than obesity within the adult population.

Healthy food apps are great, but clearly, additional steps must be taken to effectively address this public health crisis.  Searching for some insight, I delved into the archives and consulted the journal article, Agricultural Policy and Childhood Obesity: A Food Systems and Public Health Commentary, penned by medical expert, longtime public health advocate and all-around Good Guy, Dr. David Wallinga.

As Wallinga notes, most US obesity-prevention policies currently focus on the consumer (e.g., public education campaigns about healthful food choices, nutritional requirements for school meals, healthy food apps, etc.)  These policy approaches are useful, but they fail to address a critical aspect of the issue: the US food system.  The fundamental problem is that this system is structured in such a way that nutrient-poor junk calories are cheap, abundant and ubiquitous while healthful foods are expensive, comparatively scarce and often inaccessible - i.e., it's easier and cheaper to buy a soda than a vegetable.

How'd we get here? - A gross simplification of commodity crop policy

Back in the day, government food policies were developed with the intention of facilitating production of cheap calories in order to address the issues of hunger and undernourishment - so emphasis was placed on production of crops like corn and soy.

But when a whole lot of farmers produce these crops, the supply increases, causing the market price to fall - if it drops far enough, farmers are forced to sell their crops for less than the cost of production, which eventually pushes the farmer out of business.  Add to this the inherent irregularity of agricultural production levels (yields are influenced by weather, pests, and other unforeseeable natural events), and you're left with a pretty unstable market for crops.

So the government stepped in to protect farmers by implementing price support programs, which were ultimately replaced by the current system of crop subsidies.  Basically, farmers produce lots of commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice) and sell them on the market at prices below the cost of production.  Then Uncle Sam gives them a whole lot of dough to make up the difference.

What's this have to do with childhood obesity?

US crop subsidies create a bunch of problems - both domestically and internationally - but I'll stay focused on childhood obesity in this post.  Simply stated, the huge subsidies make commodity crops very inexpensive, which allows industrial producers to offer really cheap processed foods of low nutritional value.  (By the way, the subsidies also facilitate industrial livestock production, which relies upon a steady supply of cheap corn and soy for use as feed.)  Meanwhile, farmers who grow fruits and vegetables receive no commodity subsidies and minimal research, technical or financial support from the government.

In other words, existing food policies help make the ingredients in junk food really cheap, but do very little to support the production of healthful foods.  As a result, we've encountered some disturbing trends (prepare to be repulsed by facts below); kids eat dramatically more total calories, diets include more junk calories, and all of a sudden skyrocketing rates of obesity become a public health crisis.

Tough to Swallow: US food system stats from Wallinga's article

  • 600 : increase in calories consumed daily by the average American between 1970 and 2007.
  • 69%: increase in daily calories derived from added fats and oils.
  • 191%: increase in daily calories derived from corn products.
  • 246 : calories of corn sweetener consumed daily in 2007 (a 359% increase from 1970).
  • 87 million+: acres of corn planted by US farmers in 2009.
  • 4.7%: amount of US corn crop used to produce high-fructose corn syrup.
  • 172 : number of calories of sugar-sweetened beverages consumed daily by the average American child (2005-2006).
  • 39%: increase in the inflation-adjusted prices of fresh fruit and vegetables between 1985 and 2000.
  • 24%: decreasein the inflation-adjusted price of carbonated soft drinks during the same period.
  • $147 billion: annual expenditure on obesity-related illness in the US.
  • $21 billion: expenditure on commodity crop production supports in 2005.

Moving forward

As Wallinga describes,

"what has changed since agricultural "cheap food" policies were put in place is that obesity has overtaken hunger as the most prevalent nutritional problem in children - too many calories, not too few."

Indeed, the US needs some serious food systems policy reform.  Unfortunately, the junk food dilemma can't be solved by simply abolishing commodity subsidies in one fell swoop (at least not without financially ruining farmers, risking further consolidation of commodity crop production and creating significant economic instability).  So in addition to developing healthy apps, the US might consider Wallinga's advice:

Wallinga's Policy Recommendations:

  • Seek Executive Leadership - the administration needs to devote serious attention to the issue.
  • Integrate Food and Health Analysis - a single entity should be created to provide information about the links between the food system and public health in order to better inform public policy decisions.
  • Support Farmers as Anti-Obesity Partners - the government should support farmers who grow fruits and vegetables (e.g., through technical assistance, research support, agricultural training programs, financial aid for new and/or transitioning fruit and vegetable farmers, etc.)
  • Invest in Forward-Looking Research - research should focus on crop diversity and sustainability.
    Codify Healthier Commodity Food Programs - surplus commodities (i.e., junk calories) are often funneled into federal child nutrition programs; existing regulations should be adjusted to improve the nutrition standards for these programs.

Find more food and agriculture policy recommendations from Dr. Wallinga and other public health professionals onthe Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Healthy Food Action website .