The White House-commissioned Task Force on Childhood Obesity has submitted its official report and action plan to President Obama.
The report, which reflects input from 12 federal agencies and approximately 2,500 submissions received from parents, teachers, medical professionals and others, includes 70 recommendations for public- and private-sector action, as well as specific metrics and benchmarks to measure progress toward the recommended goals.
The 120-page report covers a broad range of action areas, including food and beverage marketing to children and school nutrition standards.
Many of the core marketing recommendations largely reaffirm work or discussions that are already underway by various federal agencies with the cooperation of the food and beverage industry, points out Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Wootan adds that many of the school nutrition recommendations should be addressed by Congressional legislation that must be passed by September in order to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs.
In regard to food and beverage marketing to children, the task force's report recommends that:
The report also states that if voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of "less healthy" foods/beverages to children "do not yield substantial results," the Federal Communications Commission "could consider revisiting and modernizing rules on commercial time during children's programming."
CSPI, which supports all of the recommendations in the report, agrees that voluntary industry cooperation regarding changing food/beverages marketing to children is the preferable route, but that time limits should be set for achieving the recommended goals, says Wootan.
As part of its "early childhood" recommendations, the task force recommends a number of specific measures to address providing good prenatal care for parents, support for breastfeeding, and child-care settings that provide nutritious food and ample opportunity for physical activity for young children.
The report also recommends that steps be taken to provide child care providers, teachers and parents with The American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) television/digital media "screen time" guidelines for children, and that child care/early childhood settings be encouraged to adopt these standards. AAP recommends, for instance, that children under two should not be exposed to television, and that daily television exposure for those over two be limited to one to two hours of "quality programming."
Under the general heading of "empowering parents and caregivers," in addition to the children's marketing recommendations, the task force recommends: providing simpler, more actionable messages about nutritional choices based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (including a next-generation Food Pyramid); creating/ implementing a standard front-of-package nutrition labeling system (this is already being developed by the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and industry); encouraging restaurant chains now required as part of the healthcare reform legislation to post calories on menus to implement this as quickly as possible; and encouraging restaurants to consider portion sizes, improve children's menus and "make healthy options the default choice whenever possible."
Recommendations for "providing healthy food in schools" include: improvements in federally supported school lunches and breakfasts; upgrading the nutritional quality of other foods sold in schools; and improving nutrition education and the overall school environment.
Recommendations for "getting children more physically active" include supporting quality physical education, recess, and other opportunities in and after school; addressing aspects of the "built environment" that make it difficult for children to walk or bike safely in their communities; and improving access to safe parks, playgrounds, and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities.
According to Wootan, many of the task force's recommendations regarding school nutrition and physical activities are addressed in the "Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010" now awaiting a vote in the Senate. Among other provisions, that bill includes an agreement between health groups and food and beverage companies to improve the nutritional quality of food sold out of vending machines and other venues outside of school meals, as well as school meal reimbursement funding beyond the standard adjustment for inflation.
A companion House bill is expected to be introduced before the end of May, and final legislation needs to be passed by Congress by Sept. 30 in order to continue funding for federal school nutrition programs, according to Wootan. (Congress is required to reauthorize these programs every five years, and the deadline has already been extended.)
Finally, under the general heading of "improving access to healthy, affordable food," the task force recommends measures to: eliminate "food deserts" in urban and rural America; lower the relative prices of healthier foods; develop or reformulate food products to be healthier; and reduce the incidence of hunger, which has been linked to obesity.