Junkfood Science: Misplaced priorities for the children

May 21, 2008

Misplaced priorities for the children

Mass emailings went out around the country yesterday with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation press release, praising the Washington Post for making its childhood obesity agenda front page news all week. While massive governmental and medical programs are being proposed — to address the young people who fall at the 95th percentile on revamped BMI growth charts, despite the fact that today's children are healthier than ever and living longer than ever in our country’s history — about 13 million children in our country currently don’t have enough to eat. And their numbers are growing. Little attention has been given to these young people whose lives and futures are endangered now, today, and for real.

Creating an epidemic

Instead, everyone’s focus has been directed towards childhood obesity. It’s been frighteningly easy to get people to believe in a crisis and an epidemic of childhood obesity.

Create arbitrary cut-offs for “overweight” and “at-risk-for-overweight” by making every child in the top 5% and 15% inescapably “too fat.” Don’t take into account their maturity levels or growth spurts, either, and ignore the fact that healthier children mature sooner today than decades ago when the charts were first created.

Then, redesign child growth charts, using BMIs rather than actual heights and weights, instantly placing nearly two-thirds of children in higher percentiles, despite no increase in their actual weights.

Report soaring obesity rates by percentages crossing these new cut-offs (don’t reveal changes in actual weights and heights), leading laypeople to believe that children have actually grown by those enormous proportions, exaggerating the reality. It helps to redesign the population surveys, too.

Lead the public to believe these “obesity” rates refer to body weight and to ignore that BMI is also a measure of height and healthier children have also grown taller over the decades. Ignore the factor of age, too, and convince the public that adult risks at various BMIs apply equally to children, with no evidence.

Bury the facts that despite all of these manipulations, the government’s own data had still shown there has been no increase in the rates of “overweight” or “obese” children (or adults) years before (and since) the Surgeon General, Dept. of Health and Human Services, and the National Institutes of Health launched its war on an epidemic of childhood obesity.

Recall slenderer children of past generations, being sure to neglect the fact that millions were more sickly, fighting childhood diseases that have been largely eradicated just in recent decades, and 100-fold more died of foodborne diarrhea and enteritis (the third leading cause of death in the U.S. as recently as my Grandmother’s day) largely unknown with modern food production. And absolutely, positively downplay the facts that today's children continue to be healthier and are living longer than ever.

Finally, show only nonstop images of children at the uppermost extremes on the bell curve, much as there’s been throughout history, to pile on perceptions of an epidemic of gargantuan children; and scream increasingly louder about a crisis.

The public has been convinced to ardently believe what they think they see and hear, and have willingly gotten behind the massive political agendas to address the childhood obesity crisis of its creators.

The silent crisis and unseen suffering

So, this week, while the Post hypes an exaggerated childhood obesity crisis, a few news outlets have been reporting on a returning crisis of hunger like this country hasn’t seen in generations, and food banks unable to keep up with the growing numbers needing help. If we want to do something to help children and ensure their health and futures, perhaps our eyes might be better focused on this story.

Virtually all food banks (98.9%) report they’ve had increased numbers of hungry people and families coming to them for food. The rising costs of fuel and food are the primary contributing factors, followed by rising unemployment and underemployment. Even food stamps don’t stretch with the higher prices of food experienced this year. According to Second Harvest’s data gathered from 180 food banks across the country from April 28th through May 2nd of this year, 81.11% can’t meet the need for foods and are having to reduce the amount of food or their services.

The Union Leader reports that requests for food at the New Hampshire Food Bank — a program of New Hampshire Catholic Charities, which serves more than 350 agencies statewide, from soup kitchens and after-school programs to community centers and food pantries — are up more than 46% over last year. In contrast to past years of 2-3% annual food price inflation, food went up 5% last year. “Cereals and bakery items rose by 5.6 percent, poultry by 6.3 percent, dairy by 13.4 percent, and eggs by 32.6 percent,” it reports.

Malnutrition is on the rise in numbers not seen in our country for years, KOMU-8 news in Missouri reported. Its Central Missouri Food Bank serves 33 counties where 100,000 people live at or below the poverty level, half of whom are children. The higher food prices are hitting families hard. “Families most at risk are those just a little better off than poor that survive on low-wage jobs until, suddenly, they lose their financial footing and literally their ability to feed their families,” the news reports. Food banks aren’t just helping the poor anymore, but working families. “The sad facts are two-thirds of all children growing up in poverty have one or more working parents, and one-third have a parent working full-time, year round,” said the NBC station. Despite parents’ best efforts, hunger is taking a toll on children:

“Once the cycle of moderate to severe malnutrition begins, particularly if it begins at an early age, it's difficult for that person to overcome that,” said Dr. Lynn Keplinger, an internal medicine physician. “That leads to cognitive disorders, that leads to social disorders... They don't do as well, they don't concentrate as well. How could you when you're feeling hungry all of the time?”

The growing bodies of young people do not know the difference between hunger that is inflicted upon them from food insecurity or from food restrictions as part of misguided weight loss programs directed at larger children. The harmful effects are the same. The misery and stress on their bodies and minds is the same.

Being hungry hurts.

According the longitudinal study from Cornell University, inadequate food has serious developmental consequences for children.

“We found that reading development, in particular, is affected in girls, though the mathematical skills of food-insecure children entering kindergarten also tend to develop significantly more slowly than other children's," said Edward Frongillo, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell. The study also found that girls' social skills suffer when families that have been food secure become food insecure while the child is in the early primary grades.

Their study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, examined the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten cohort, a prospective sample of about 21,000 nationally representative children entering kindergarten in 1998 and followed through 3rd grade. They found that food insecurity was predictive of poor developmental trajectories in children, especially impaired social skills and reading performance for girls, even after controlling for child and household contributing factors. You can’t tell a hungry child by looking at him/her, either, as children without enough to eat come in all shapes and sizes, fat and thin.

A study just published in the Journal of Nutrition in March, led by researchers at the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, examined the dietary survey data and food security status from the Canadian Community Health Survey. They found that teens and adults in homes without enough to eat suffer nutritional consequences that could have lasting effects on their health. “Higher estimated prevalences of nutrient inadequacy were apparent among adolescents and adults in food-insecure households, with the differences most marked for protein, vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, folate, vitamin B-12, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc.”

In sharp contrast to the images of gluttony the Washington Post and RWJF are intently working to portray, journalist Richard Wolf of USA Today wrote an in-depth article about “why it hurts” to not have enough to eat and that more than 41% of those needing food aid are working families and even professionals who find themselves out of work. “That's remarkably different than the profile of who we've served through the years,” said Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

They are real estate agents and homebuilders hit by the housing slump, seniors on Social Security, parents of students whose free breakfast and lunch programs don't solve the problem of dinner. Increasingly in recent months, they have signed up for food stamps and shown up at food pantries, trying to make ends meet... “It’s humiliating.”... Kindergarteners in Baton Rouge are hoarding part of their [school] lunches to eat later at home, says Mike Manning, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank.

“People are hurting,” says Kitty Schaller, executive director of the MANNA FoodBank in Asheville, N.C., where one in six people get emergency food assistance. “They are really hurting in a way that I think may well be unprecedented.”

Wolf’s report from the front lines reveal officials describing unprecedented hardship with demands at food banks up 15-20% from just last year, while food supplies dwindle and donations are down:

• In Oakland, the number of monthly calls into the Alameda County Community Food Bank has risen 28% from last year. Since July, each month has set a new record.

• In Tyler, Texas, the East Texas Food Bank has stopped buying rice and pinto beans in bulk quantities because they're too expensive. Some of the pantries it serves no longer can drive up to two hours to the central food bank because of a 64% increase in fuel costs.

• In Detroit, executive director Augie Fernandes is seeing more seniors on fixed incomes "who are very proud" come into the Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.

• In Ponca City, Okla., the local food pantry is serving more than 500 people a month, a 20% increase from last year. As a result, it's had to cut their monthly allotments from three bags of food to two...

• In Nashville...

• In Alaska, 15 remote food pantries have closed because they lacked sufficient government commodities...

• In Orlando, Dave Krepcho of the Food Bank of Central Florida has eight trucks and a tractor-trailer on the road full time, picking up food from grocery stores. He worries about low-income children home from school this summer. Krepcho, the food bank's executive director, has been in the business 16 years. "This is the worst that I've ever seen it," he says, "by far."

Similar news came from the Chicago Sun Times:

...Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition, said she's seeing people more frantic for food than ever. “The level of desperation is just frightening” she said. “People are calling, saying they have no idea what they are going to do.”

But even as demand is rising, many food panties nationwide have been forced to cut back on the amount of food given to individual families because higher fuel costs and commodity prices have sliced into private donations to the pantries, Daly and others say. What that means is the hungry are casting an ever wider net for food, showing up at pantry after pantry.

Last month, the New York Daily News reported that 200 food pantries and soup kitchens across the Bronx were suffering the worst food shortages in decades and only expected to grow more serious as demand rises with the falling economy. “The Food Bank for New York City, which supplies food to 1,000 agencies and 1.3 million people, calls it the worst since its founding 25 years ago,” they reported, adding:

In 2007, the Food Bank received 17 million pounds of food through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, less than half of the 35 million pounds it received in 2002. And donations from individuals and corporations are also down about 50%.

At the same time that the Food Bank's warehouse supply is dwindling, the demand for food, the jobless rate, rent and food prices, are all increasing. The Food Bank now feeds 191,000 Bronx residents, 55% more than three years ago.

The very same days that these appeals went out, another paper in New York City was reporting that higher food prices were good news as it meant people will eat “healthier” and reduce obesity. Organic vendors and food activists were on my local television news expressing their delight with the higher prices because it makes their expensive foods comparable to what’s at the market. There is no excuse for poor, working people to not choose to eat better, locally grown foods, and make healthier choices, they claimed. “Make a sacrifice on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,” Alice Waters said.

Newsflash: Hungry people, elderly on fixed incomes and poor families are not rushing out to buy gourmet organic foods and shop at Wholefoods. They are having to cut out and cut back on foods they once bought at the grocery store and bulk grocers, looking for enough to eat. They can't afford the luxury of food ideologies. Hunger brings reality. Meats and proteins have become too expensive, they look for sales on cheaper cuts or hamburger, refried beans, canned tuna; white sandwich bread at the day-old store substitutes for more expensive wholegrain products; rice and pasta and tortillas can fill tummies with less cost; produce variety has narrowed to the cheapest items at a discount store, and frozen vegetables on sale at the grocery store; breakfast cereals like generic cheerios bought in bulk at discount stores long ago replaced granolas; milk has had to be cut back and mothers are even watering it down to make it stretch; and cheeses and yogurts were cut out from shopping lists months ago. In desperation and humiliation they are finding themselves having to turn to food banks.

In numbers that exceed those in an embellished childhood obesity epidemic.

Last week, America's Second Harvest - the Nation's Food Bank Network, featured a week long photo essay trying to spotlight the faces of the 35 million people hungry in America. The food banks need help to meet the needs of hungry people in communities across the country, while donations are down. To learn the situation at your local area food banks, the latest report can be found here, along with contact information for making donations.

Or, you can choose to pile on and chastise naturally fat children for their size. You can allow them to be exposed to things like the Post’s special section for children, giving them a “heart to heart chat about fat” and threatening them that their fat is really, really bad and will give them scary, painful and serious diseases, and it’s all because they eat badly and aren’t active enough. The reporter doesn’t have to deal with the devastating consequences for these children’s self esteems, nor will the newspaper be held accountable for the humiliating discrimination children across Washington, D.C. must be facing at school this week or the resulting rise in eating disorders and the health problems as young people try to diet before they’re old enough to read.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc. All rights reserved.

Part One on Washington Post series here.

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