Food is a matter of health equity. Too many kids, particularly children of color and low-income children, have limited access to healthy food in their schools and neighborhoods. Without good nutrition to support their growing bodies, they face the highest risks of diabetes, obesity, and other nutrition-related health challenges.
So how do we ensure that every child gets the necessary food to thrive? In the United States, we rely on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to provide the framework on which federal food and nutrition policy and education initiatives are built and the benchmark for how we define healthy food. These guidelines influence what kids are served in school cafeterias and what they are taught about good nutrition.
Every day, nearly 31 million children take part in the National School Lunch Program, of which 70% receive free or reduced-price meals. For many students, school feeding programs are their primary source of food, making it vital that the Dietary Guidelines promote the healthiest options.
Foods promoted in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children are equally influenced by the guidelines, and nutritionists promote the guidelines to their patients and community residents. Families, communities, and a global coalition of foundations recognize the importance of ensuring that the guidelines promote optimal health for the nation’s children.
As they do every 5 years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently have a chance to adopt the recommendations of a scientific advisory committee to make the current Dietary Guidelines more robust.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has made a clear, conscious effort to analyze how food environments affect health outcomes and recommends policy changes to address health and obesity concerns. “Optimal nutrition and weight management cannot be achieved without a focus on the synergistic linkages and interactions between individuals and their environments,” the DGAC wrote in its February 2015 report, “and understanding the different domains of food-related environmental influences.”
Among the recommendations, one component deserves particularly strong support: elevating water as a preferred beverage—and addressing the environmental and structural barriers that perpetuate inequities in access to free, safe water.
Increasing access to and encouraging consumption of safe drinking water are imperative in the fight against childhood obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. Sweetened beverages are the largest contributor of added sugars to children’s diets and the third largest source of calories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2013, the USDA published its Smart Snacks in School rules, prohibiting sales of sugary beverages from elementary and middle schools and allowing only low-calorie sugar-sweetened beverages in high school. However, prohibition of sale of sugary beverages in schools creates a need to supply increased access to a healthy alternative: drinking water.
Moreover, many low-income kids and children of color disproportionately live in neighborhoods and go to schools where lead, nitrates, arsenic, and other pollutants make the water unsafe to drink, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Ensuring that all our children have access to clean water in child care facilities, schools, recreation centers, sports fields, libraries, community spaces, and their homes is an important frontier in the fight for greater health equity.
Americans want children to drink more water. In a key finding, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 2015 School Food Poll found that 91% of Americans say that encouraging children to drink more water is a “number one” or “high” priority. The same poll shows that 90% of people believe water should be the preferred beverage choice and a part of the Dietary Guidelines.
While an increased emphasis on drinking water is encouraging, it is disappointing that HHS and the USDA have decided not to include the DGAC’s recommendations on sustainable food production. They recently stated that despite the importance of the goal of sustainability, it falls outside the mandate of the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines … based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.”
Sustainability issues are every bit as relevant to dietary guidance as physical activity or food security. In its scientific report, the DGAC noted that diets higher in fresh foods are “more healthy … associated with lesser environmental impact.”
Moreover, sustainably grown foods affect the quality of life of the people growing them. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 300,000 farmworkers suffer from pesticide poisoning each year, as noted by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. This is devastating for workers and their families. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation poll also found that more than 80% agree that sustainable agriculture practices should be included in the dietary guidelines. It is for these very reasons that many of us hoped that the USDA and HHS would see the importance of supporting sustainable agricultural practices for the health of our children, for farmworkers, and for the millions of people who connect the health of our people with the health of our earth.
Our children and country deserve Dietary Guidelines that acknowledge the need for an alignment of systems, policies, and practices to reflect the most current scientific evidence supporting optimal health for all children. Please join us in asking the USDA and HHS to adopt the DGAC recommendations for sustainability of food production and elevating water as the preferred beverage.