White House task force issues report on fighting childhood obesity

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In a tremendous show of administration muscle, Cabinet officials Tuesday stood shoulder to shoulder onstage with Michelle Obama to reveal results of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity: a 124-page report laying out 70 recommendations and a gentle warning that, while the federal government can't solve the obesity epidemic, it is prepared to take action where others don't.

The task force, created by the president as part of the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign, which launched in February, defined success by the numbers: returning this country to a childhood obesity rate of 5 percent by 2030. The current rate is about 20 percent.

Members of the task force, chaired by White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes, focused their efforts on five areas: prenatal care, empowering parents with nutritional information and community support, getting healthier foods into schools, increasing access to healthy foods in neglected urban and rural neighborhoods, and making sure that all kids are physically active.

The recommendations were unveiled at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where Barnes held up a copy of the report -- 90 days in the making -- with its multitude of sections and subsections. Cabinet officials lending their voices included Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. The Federal Trade Commission was represented by Chairman Jon Leibowitz; Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan appeared for the Agriculture Department; and White House adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle, fresh from the health-care reform fight, was on hand. In her remarks, the first lady made clear that the report would serve as a full-fledged playbook.

"For the first time -- this is the key -- we're setting really clear goals and benchmarks and measurable outcomes that will help tackle this challenge one step, one family and one child at a time," she said.

The power to move them

While many of the recommendations to food manufacturers and marketers rely on the enormous bully pulpit of the federal government as the motivation to act, the task force noted that agencies reserve the right to use more extreme measures -- subpoenas and new regulations -- if need be. Leibowitz noted during a question-and-answer session that he has not ruled out regulatory action if companies don't make headway in decreasing the amount of junk food advertised to kids. The report recommended that the federal and state governments "analyze the effect of state and local sales taxes on less healthy, energy-dense foods." In other words, a sugar or fat tax.

"Now we just need to follow through with the plan. We just need everyone to do their part -- and it's going to take everyone," the first lady said. "No one gets off the hook on this one."

Obama underscored the importance of reauthorizing and expanding the Child Nutrition Act and getting more children enrolled in its summer meals programs so health gains made during the school year are not lost during vacation months. Merrigan later noted that while 11 million children receive subsidized school breakfasts and lunches, only 2.4 million are part of the summer program. That gap, she said, represents missed opportunities for improved nutrition.

Less is more

Recommendation 2.2: Labeling on packaged foods must be standardized. Recommendation 2.4: Restaurants need to adjust portion sizes. "Value marketing has been so lucrative for restaurants," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). "They can give you more food on a plate, charge you more and make a profit."

Recommendation 2.6: Chains need to limit the licensing of popular characters to healthy foods. Recommendation 2.7: The country needs a standard definition of precisely what is meant by "marketing to children."

The report also encouraged women to breast-feed their children as an obesity preventative and urged communities to create work and child-care environments where that can happen.

The country also needs to rethink its approach to public housing, Donovan said, so sidewalks and bike paths are included in the planning. Street-facing porches should become part of the design standard because they give neighbors a direct view onto sidewalks and that helps improve neighborhood safety, he added.

In addition to the suggestions -- some stern, others more subtle -- the committee set out markers to measure progress. For instance, it would like to see kids eating 75 percent of the USDA recommended serving of fruits by 2015. The goal is to hit 85 percent by 2020 and 100 percent by 2030.

The report does not go so far as recommending an end to certain government subsidies, such as for corn, which have been criticized by many good-food advocates. But it does offer the possibility of subsidizing the purchase of healthy foods. And while Sebelius made clear that the committee is not suggesting a federal tax on sugar, she said that some municipalities have embraced the idea.

The report was lauded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity, which has a long history of fighting youth obesity. And CSPI, the group that once called fettucine Alfredo a "heart attack on a plate," found the work encouraging. "It's not the usual kind of vague government recommendations like we should improve school foods," said Wootan, who was one of many community advisers, along with experts from RWJF. "It talks about increasing resources, increasing reimbursement rates, making sure there's food service equipment so schools can cook.

"It's not just the first lady saying these would be nice to do, but standing next to her are people from the departments with the resources to do something. It gives me hope that this is a national priority."

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