Secretaries Face Children on Obesity

Kids ask hard-hitting questions of members of the president's cabinet

ByLARA SALAHI via via logo
February 9, 2010, 5:34 PM

Feb. 10, 2010— -- "The most honest truth telling in the world is done by children," Oliver Wendell Holmes once said.

But what happens when you stick a group of politicians in a room with the most honest group in the world? It may turn into a candid discussion about a condition among children that has tripled over the last 30 years -- obesity.

Such was the case when a dozen fourth and fifth graders posed a few hard-hitting questions to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who are all now part of President Barack Obama's new federal task force to combat childhood obesity .

"Can there be more unique choices for fruits and vegetables in school lunches?" one child asked.

"Secretary Sebelius, are you holding the fast food industry responsible for what they put in the food for children? If so, what measures have you taken?" another child asked.

"We all have some responsibility," Sebelius said. "We've asked them to look at how much salt they put in products or how much sugar is in products, so there may be some healthier choices on menus."

It may sound simple, but the scale of America's obesity epidemic has risen fast. A recent study by the Institute of Medicine, comissioned by the USDA, found that half the calories consumed by children ages 6 to 11 are considered unnecessary snack calories.

Along with Obama's memorandum, the president also plans to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which expired September 2009. Obama is proposing a $10 billion budget increase -- $1 billion a year for 10 years -- to help provide nutritious school lunches to those who qualify.

Children consume as many as half of their daily calories at school, according to a 2009 report by the Institute of Medicine. More than 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and more than 11 million participate in the National School Breakfast Program, federally assisted meal programs offered in many school systems. However, critics say reimbursement rates are low and more funding is needed.

"We need to do a much better job of making sure that what's in those vending machines is very consistent," Vilsack said. "What we're doing is we're trying to figure out the foods that will basically give you a strong heart and strong body."

New Childhood Obesity Program: 'Let's Move'

On Tuesday, first lady Michelle Obama launched "Let's Move," a government campaign aimed at tackling the obesity problem. The campaign focuses on better informing parents of the importance of nutrition and exercise, decreasing fat and sugar in school lunches, making healthy food more accessible to families and putting more emphasis on physical education.

But many physical education programs across the nation's school systems are among the first to fall victim to deeper budget cuts.

In fact, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools offer daily physical education, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What we're trying to really encourage school districts to think about is even when things are very, very tough, don't cut those extracurricular activities," said Duncan.

While many parts of the initiative are directed toward school programs, some parts of the campaign are also aimed at creating a healthier lifestyle for children at home.

"Kids just aren't getting all the exercise they need in schools, so parents need to enforce it as well," said ABC News Senior Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser.

In fact, children who regularly eat dinner as a family, get around 10 hours of sleep and limit the amount of time they spend watching TV are 40 percent less likely to be obese, according to a study published this month in Pediatrics.

Drawing on her own experiences, the first lady said she has implemented minor changes in her daughters' lives, including limiting television time, replacing sugary drinks in their lunch box with water and milk, and engaging them in more physical activities.

"Small changes can lead to big results," she said during an obesity campaign at the YMCA in Alexandria, Va., last week. "We just have to make the commitment to do it."

While the secretaries offered the new campaign as an answer to help end childhood obesity, questions by the kids kept the pressure on.

"How can children help other children who are obese?"

"What can teachers in our schools do to model better nutritional habits?"

"What's the most important thing you're doing to address this crisis?" Besser asked the cabinet.

"The most important thing is getting the attention of the American people, such as parents and teachers and aunts and uncles and kids, about the fact that we have a health crisis that is really affecting our children," Sebelius said.

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