An Unbalanced Plate of Food Policy


Many young children in the U.S. have not been eating their vegetables. That seemingly unsurprising finding comes from a new analysis of nationally representative survey data. But the study focuses on a subset of kids who are often overlooked — those in the first two years of life. Even if you count high-carb or high-fat white-potato dishes as vegetables, some small fries still fall short of medical recommendations. The results suggest a shortage of guidance on multiple levels — medical, governmental, parental, educational.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children should be given vegetables or fruits, or both, with every meal or snack. Visual:

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children should be given vegetables or fruits, or both, with every meal or snack, the study authors wrote on May 1 in Pediatrics. Other experts recommend that babies as young as 8 months should be eating half a cup of vegetables and half a cup of fruit every day.

But the Pediatrics study found that one in four children aged 6 to 11 months, and nearly one in five aged 12 to 23 months, ate no vegetables on a typical day.

The researchers surveyed parents to assess the eating and drinking habits of more than 2,300 youngsters. Food and beverage intake was recorded on two randomly selected days between 2005 and 2008, and again on two such days between 2009 and 2012.

Some disquieting trends showed up along racial and ethnic lines. For instance, daily vegetable consumption dropped over time among 12-to-23-month-old non-Hispanic black children and among their Mexican-American peers, but not among non-Hispanic whites.

One problem is the lack of any federal policy for the diets of kids under 2 years old, wrote the researchers, epidemiologist Gandarvaka Miles of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and nutritional scientist Anna Maria Siega-Riz of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

Further evidence of a shaky commitment to federal food policy emerged this week — on Mother’s Day, no less — when Politico reported that House Republicans were considering a budget cut that would slash funding for food stamps, welfare, and other poverty programs.

But the problem goes far beyond Capitol Hill. Charmaine Ruddock, project director of Bronx Health REACH, in New York City, notes that  high rates of obesity, diabetes, poverty, and food scarcity have afflicted its clients since its inception 17 years ago.

“All politics are local, the issues are local, sometimes irrespective of political flavor of the community and the elected officials,” she told a May 11 panel discussion on food justice at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. “I mean, we’ve had Democrats as elected officials in the Bronx, right? And we have not seen a significant improvement in the lives of our children and our adults. So I’m always mindful that in communities of color, where the health disparities are so prevalent and so deeply entrenched, that we be careful about what political label we put on people and that we challenge even those who are supposed to be allies.”

Politicians come and politicians go. But healthy food policies, such as nutritional guidelines, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), and product labeling, shouldn’t be held hostage to politics.