Why Johnny Can't Eat Right

How Washington feeds the epidemic of childhood obesity

The larding up of America is not media hysteria. With a diet heavy on cheeseburgers, salty fries, sweet soda, and video games, the number of overweight kids has almost doubled over the past two decades. One in seven is now officially labeled obese. Adult-onset diabetes even had to be renamed Type 2 diabetes partly because so many children and adolescents have it.

So what is Washington doing about this epidemic? Bill Frist, the physician who became Senate Majority Leader in January, last year proposed spending more than $300 million for obesity prevention programs. He got nowhere.

Despite all the flapping about fat, 2003 looks no more promising. As Congress begins to reauthorize soon-to-expire nutrition programs for children and low-income mothers, battling the national bulge doesn't appear to be a big concern. Lawmakers seem more intent on protecting food companies and preserving pet spending projects than improving the multibillion-dollar school lunch and Women, Infants, & Children (WIC) programs.

A number of nutritionists claim that lax policies on the sale of chips, cookies, and sodas at school have undermined efforts to improve student diets. And they point out that WIC--which supplements the diets of mothers and children with incomes of up to 185% of the poverty level--hasn't updated its menu of offerings for more than two decades. "These programs may be promoting obesity. At the very least, they are not preventing it," says Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating & Weight Disorders. "It's a massive lost opportunity."

The size of the programs makes them ripe for industry pressure. The $10 billion National School Lunch Program subsidizes breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks for 27 million public school children. And WIC, funded at more than $4 billion a year, serves almost half of all babies born in the U.S., according to the Agriculture Dept. Food and beverage companies jealously fight for their piece of the pie.

The dairy lobby's influence over the WIC program is evident in the list of foods that vouchers can buy: milk, cheese, and eggs, but virtually no fresh fruits or vegetables. Some activists want the program to reflect more recent nutritional science, which stresses diets heavy in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. But they aren't optimistic. "Every industry is going to try to protect their niche," says Reverend Douglas A. Greenaway, executive director of the National Association of WIC Directors.

The dairy industry says the protein and calcium in milk make it indispensable to kids' diets. "It must remain a key component of federal feeding programs," says Susan Ruland of the International Dairy Foods Assn. Still, while acknowledging that many Americans suffer from a calcium deficit, many nutritionists say the high fat content in some dairy products contributes to heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death in America.

To make sure its WIC franchise isn't watered down, the dairy industry maintains a formidable presence on Capitol Hill. When Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) last year came out in favor of modernizing the WIC menu, dairy advocates came knocking. Shortly thereafter, Kohl moderated his view. In an Oct. 22 letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, he suggested that any changes in the WIC basket should be made only after "rigorous scientific analysis."

Corporate players are just as protective of their school lunch turf. During a Senate Agriculture Committee staff meeting last year, a discussion about banning soft-drink machines in high schools was effectively terminated when an assistant to Senator Zell Miller (D-Ga.) reminded his colleagues that Coca-Cola Co. (KO ) is based in Atlanta. "The senator believes the focus should be on what children are doing inside the classroom, not outside of it," says his spokeswoman. Coke and PepsiCo Inc. (PEP ) have vending machines in 43% of elementary schools, 74% of middle schools, and virtually all high schools. And with the government estimating that more than 20% of schools at all levels offer fast food like McDonald's (MCD ) in cafeterias, kids can make a meal out of french fries and soda.

While few school officials would want to encourage such eating habits, the financial incentive for allowing companies to set up shop in schools is nearly irresistible. Food and beverage companies give schools a portion of their profits from vending machines and often provide such perks as sports uniforms and scoreboards, which can be vital in a time of shrinking education budgets.

To change this scenario, nutritionists advocate increasing the federal reimbursement rate for a school meal, which currently stands at $2.14 per lunch. But with money for domestic programs tight, more funding for either WIC or school lunches is unlikely anytime soon. Although some states are taking action, it also appears that Congress will not vote to regulate vending machines in schools: Soft-drink companies and school administrators would fiercely oppose it.

Yet some food activists are optimistic. "There is such a concern about obesity now that I think there will be improvements," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She and other nutritionists hasten to note that WIC and school lunch programs have curbed child hunger. Indeed, Agriculture claims that WIC saves $3 for every $1 spent by reducing infant mortality and low birthweights.

Yet it is precisely because these programs reach tens of millions of people, advocates say, that it's time to redesign them to dramatically improve dietary health. With powerful interest groups in the way and a federal budget already stretched thin, however, it may be a long time before that pot boils.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.