Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor
Fred Wilkinson, Managing Editor

While the news is often filled with stories of decline in the U.S. — home prices, influence in the world, etc. — one area where the nation perennially seems to be a leader is our expanding waistlines.

But maybe all-you-can-eat cotton candy and the Chocolate Wonderfall at the value-priced steak buffet Golden Corral have proved a bridge too far for the seemingly insatiable American appetite.

New research detailed in a New York Times article published Christmas Day shows a healthy trend may be developing among one of the most nutritionally at-risk populations — young children of low-income families involved in government feeding efforts.

A national study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests modest declines in obesity among children ages 2-4.

The study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at height and weight measurements of 27 million children who were part of the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food subsidies to low-income mothers and their children up to the age of 5.

The researchers found that from 1998 to 2010 the number of obese children declined to 14.9% in 2010, down from 15.2% in 2003, after rising between 1998 and 2003.

OK, it’s not a dramatic change.

But it is a step in the right direction and a concrete finding that hopefully will bolster some positive trends in government nutrition programs.

It is also noteworthy that fresh fruits and vegetables won their place in the WIC program in fall 2009, within the time frame when the study found obesity dropping slightly among kids in the program.

The news follows a streak of produce industry successes in the food policy arena in the past several years — notably, in addition to the WIC effort, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program in schools nationwide.

The produce industry’s school salad bar program deserves a mention here as well.

Of course, while the correlation between the study findings and the increase in feeding efforts’ fresh produce offerings can be assumed, it can’t be proved.

Still, it’s reason for cautious optimism in the fight against obesity and related disease.

More important, it’s a powerful talking point in lobbying for an even stronger fresh produce presence in government food and nutrition programs.

SNAP to it

While the news about obesity and WIC kids is encouraging, even more progress could be realized through a little tinkering with food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as it’s officially known, which helps feed a record 50 million Americans.

On the day after Christmas, Times food writer Mark Bittman had a piece titled “Stop subsidizing obesity," in which he suggests an interesting approach to emphasize the nutritional aspect of the program’s mission to feed hungry Americans.

Bittman’s proposed solution: essentially apply the tried-and-true retail grocery strategy of double coupons to food stamps.

New York and some other cities have programs that double the value of food stamps for purchases at farmers markets, and Bittman suggests applying that increase in spending power for food stamps used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods, not just in farmers markets but in supermarkets and everywhere food is purchased.

The USDA currently finances a similar pilot program — known as the Health Incentives Pilot — in Hampden County, Mass., but it is scheduled to end soon, Bittman writes.

It’s a worthy idea, and one produce trade groups on the legislative front lines such as United Fresh Produce Association ought to consider championing.

Given the bitterly divided Congress, getting anything done in D.C. will be a grind, even something as seemingly non-controversial as improving Americans’ diets.

Contending with the influence of grain/meat/dairy interests in federal food and agriculture is always a tough fight.

But the produce industry’s legislative victories in recent years and stronger-than-ever backing from the executive branch certainly give it some momentum to take a run at it.

It’s time to double food stamps for fresh produce.

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