Is Banning Trans Fat the New State Legislative Frontier?

There is state legislative action directed at banning trans fat in both Ohio and Illinois. The movement against this dreaded lipid was initiated in New York City back in 2006, allowing restaurants until 2008 to adapt to the regulations. 2006 also marked the year that nutrition labeling began including trans fat at the direction of the federal government. Ohio is struggling with it’s efforts- the recently passed (Apr 2011) “Healthy Cleveland” initiative is being opposed by the Ohio Restaurant Association, citing the protection of small businesses and freedom of fast-food establishments from local municipalities. Illinois Representative La Shawn Ford (D) has met resistance with banning trans fat as well. His proposed bill only passed in the Illinois House, yet he is resolved to reintroduce the bill later in the year hoping for success such as in California. California was the first state to successfully ban trans fat in restaurants in 2008, taking effect by January 2010, although cities such as NYC, Philadelphia, and Seattle had already made efforts in this area.  You are probably wondering- what does it matter anyways? Not to worry if you politely smiled and nodded during discussions of the health repercussions of trans fat because you weren’t exactly sure what it is. Now you can be trans fat savvy just in case your boss’s wife traps you in a debate at the company holiday party.

A fat is a certain type of molecule that is mainly composed of carbons and hydrogens in a variety of ways. “Trans” refers to a particular type of hydrogen-carbon-carbon-hydrogen arrangement. The carbons are attached in the middle and hydrogens lie on either side of that bond.  This format is made by adding hydrogens, also known as hydrogenation, of liquid vegetable oils that lends the carbon-carbon bonds rigidity. Think sixth grade when you thought it was cool to do walk like an Eqyptian. You know the one- one arm behind and one in front of you in a zig-zag. Imagine your elbows are carbons and your hands are hydrogens.

What is the point of hydrogenation? It can increase the length of time that vegetable fats have before going rancid, therefore increasing the shelf-life of manufactured food products. Extension of shelf life is better for storage and sales of foods, as well as allows the consumer a longer window for consumption. The downside is that including trans fat in the diet can influence higher levels of LDL cholesterol in the body, which is a more harmful form of cholesterol and is more associated with heart disease and clogging of the arteries. It is important to note the ingredients of manufactured food products on the Nutrition Facts label to assess if there are trans fats. According to the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, the guidelines for trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label allow for trace amounts of trans fat to be present in the food without reporting them until there is 1 gram per serving. On the ingredients, keep an eye out for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” to indicated the use of trans fat in the food product.

Many restaurants are already taking efforts to eliminate trans fat from menus, whether in anticipation of legislation or for the betterment of health and consumer appeal. Opponents uphold this argument to resist state legislature, insisting that it would be more appropriate for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate trans fat rather than through state law.

White House Conference on Food and Nutrition: Take Two

The last White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health was in 1969 under President Nixon. There were 26 pre-Conference panels designated to adress the issues at hand. The items covered in 1969 are still prevalent today such as social security, tax reform, and child nutrition. That conference addressed poverty and its subsequent impact on malnutrition and hunger in the United States, the theory being that Americans would have to ability to purchase more food if the buying power was increased.

There is currently a bipartisan bill referred to the Agriculture Committee calling for another conference, H.R. 1382, proposed by Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachussetts and Republican JoAnn Emerson of Missouri. In a letter addressed to President Obama, Representative Mcgovern outlines the progress and further measures needed to eliminate hunger in the American population. The importance of this proposed conference is the potential to set national goals considering policy, expansion of programs as with the food stamp program and school lunch in the 1969 conference, and address the pervasive issue of hunger in our own backyard.

Childhood wellness is a targeted focus by multiple personalities and institutions in America today. There is the well known Let’s Move! Campaign spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, the Kids Eat Right program with the American Dietetic Association, and Fuel Up to Play 60 with the NFL and National Dairy Council among the most popular, yet there are thousands of other programs and professionals tackling this topic. The topic being most addressed is “childhood obesity,” yet the more appropriate term to be used is indeed childhood wellness. There are so many issues that factor into a healthy, growing kid such as good food choices and activity. From 1963 before the Nixon 1969 Conference until 2008, USDA has data and supporting figures for the prevalence of childhood obesity, the 2007-2008 data showing 16.9% of children between 2 and 19 years old are obese as defined by BMI standards. There is evidence; however, that the rate of children becoming qualified as obese is stablizing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “the prevalence of obesity in low-income two to four year-olds increased from 12.4 percent in 1998 to 14.5 percent in 2003 but rose to only 14.6 percent in 2008.” Also, the Journal of the American Medical Association even published a platuea between 1999 and 2006, except for the boys between 6 and 19 years old at the highest BMIs, based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data.  It is important to remember the all encompassing nature of health while communicating messages to today’s youth. The message, rather than all or even most children in America are obese, should be encouragement for physical activity and education for healthy, nutritious foods instead. Many families today are obligated to conform these goals to a tight budget, an act that can be daunting without the proper programs and knowledge to approach it with more confidence.

Is alphabet soup for everyone?

SNAP, CFSP, TEFAP, SFSP. A long line of letters to assist the the food insecure population in America, but what do they really mean?

SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is one of the most recognizable food assistance programs and is formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Not to be confused with the artist formerly known as Prince. This program is designed to help people who are unable to afford an adequate diet as well as the lesser known benefit of helping to support disaster victims, such as in a hurricane. The latest development in the program is that the traditional vouchers used at the grocery checkout have now been discarded in favor of 21st century technology. The enrollees of the program are given a plastic card known as an electronic benefit card (EBT). The card can be used just like a debit card at the grocery store checkout to redeem benefits. SNAP participation mimics unemployment as well as economic strength as it is paired with unemployment insurance. There are also programs in place where applicants can apply at institutions such as the food bank to decrease the amount confusing paperwork. It is important to note there is an inverted relationship between benefits and income for the participant. For every dollar earned by the participant, the amount of benefits is decreased.

CFSP, or the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, is a USDA program that provides access to food for women, infants, children, and even seniors.  The specific population eligible for CFSP are pregnant or breastfeeding women, or new moms up to one year postpartum. Their children are also eligible until their sixth birthday. Seniors that are 60 years or older also qualify. As with most food assistance programs, there are income eligibility requirements that are confirmed prior to enrollment as 130% of the poverty level. With this program, commodity packages are provided to participants in order supplement nutrients that are typically lacking in these populations. Different types of food commodities include meat and poultry, fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy, rice, peanuts, and cereals. CFSP is an outlet for government commodities as well as providing food for populations that may be unable to meet their nutrition needs through other assistance programs. The population most served by this program is seniors, comprising almost 90%. This is probably because of the coverage for women, infants, and children through the WIC program (Women, Infants, and Children). WIC is slightly different from CFSP in that it also serves pregnant or breastfeeding moms, but it provides for infants and children only up to the age of 5 years. Rather than supplying commodity foods, WIC provides benefits that can be credited at certain grocery and convenience stores for a prescribed list of foods. For example, non-breastfed infants are supplied with formula based on the infants needs whereas a one year old will be supplied whole milk or soy milk in the event of a doctor prescribed milk allergy or sensitivity. CFSP unfortunately doesn’t exist in all 50 states and not even every county in those states and rising food prices are threatening to program growth and even maintenance.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, is proposed for short-term hunger relief. Income eligibility for this program is between 100 and 155 percent of the poverty level and include any population in need from the elderly, homeless, and working families. TEFAP is also a program that utilizes commodities like CFSP. Rather than under the jurisdiction of the USDA, TEFAP is overseen by the Agriculture Committees in both the House and the Senate. TEFAP is administered through various agencies. For example, the food is distributed to a food bank, which in turn makes it available to a church to prepare a meal for the homeless. It is a manner in which to provide food at the community level to those in need.

SFSP, the Summer Food Service Program, is for children up to the age of 18, or people with disabilities older than 18 enrolled in school programs, to account for two healthy meals or snacks each day during the summer. Many students receive free or reduced school lunch during the school year, but due to a lack of programs for the summer are often undernourished when school is not in session. SFSP program sites apply to the state and are trained on implementation of the policies after state approval. Rather than the child applying for the program, the site is responsible for the process and provides the meals or snacks to the children whom are enrolled. For example, any child who attends a camp in the summer that is an SFSP program is given the provided meal or snack at no cost. These sites are typically in neighborhoods where at least half of the children are from households at or below 185% of the poverty level. The SFSP does not provide food, but instead is a monetary program. The site is responsible for serving nutritious foods according to program guidelines, and in complying with policy, receives specific reimbursement rates based on the type of meal or snack. It is the site’s responsibility to appropriately budget according to the reimbursement.

Percents of the poverty level is a phrase used often, especially in regards to assistance programs, but what does it really mean? As defined by the Department of Health and Human Services and determined by the Census Bureau, the poverty threshold is based on the income per American household, as well as the measure of need which is age and number of household members. Poverty threshold is reserved for statistical purposes, whereas poverty guidelines, or the more commonly used poverty level/line, are more administrative and used for determining program eligibility like the ones listed above. Guidelines are produced through the Department of Health and Human Services through average poverty threshold adjusted by inflation and number of persons in the household. 130% for example would indicated that the household income is 30% greater than the federal poverty level for that household. For example, if a one person household 100% federal poverty level monthly income was $900, the 130% level would be a monthly income of $1170. The DHHS figures are applicable to all states except for the adjusted Alaska, Hawaii, and District of Columbia.

To find out more about food security in your community and nationwide, check out the awesome Map the Meal Gap tool created by Feeding America!

1 cookie, 2 cookies, 3 cookies, 4!

That’s one of those age-old questions, isn’t it? 4 sounds super, but the last time I did that I got heartburn was guilted into taking the stairs rather than the elevator to work. Everday situations have an frustrating habit of steamrolling intricately laid plans. Swimsuit season, a first date, reality tv- all motivators for a resolution to portion control and ban chocolate. Then a work function boasts 5 varieties of cupcake and the beach party gets postponed- the reality of life happens and that iron-clad resolve withers like straight hair in humidity.

It is in this spirit that the guidance of Shakespeare interrupts the mental replay of decisions like the cookie debacle. In his famed tragedy, The Tempest (Act 2, scene 1, 254), Shakespeare enlightens on the importance of utilizing the current situation for the development of the future: “what’s past is prologue”. The key aspect of Shakespeare’s argument is the reality that the past can’t be changed. This is such an overused quip at times that it is hard to piece together that it lends hope. The inherent nature of the past is that those decisions and actions can’t be redone, but the fortunate aspect is the ability to reevaluate our future actions. A way to not see that whole cake magically disappear or left scratching your head thinking “Where on earth is that pint of Dutch Chocolate?”. Use every lapse in dietary judgement  as a springboard for change. A way to acknowledge the mistake, enjoy that glorious icing for just a moment, and know that the next bite is a great moment to alter a pattern of the diet doldrums.

In case you simply can’t resist the lure of cookies- try this recipe from Prevention Healthy Cooking so you can revel in your ability to take the elevator, knowing that you are one step closer to healthy choices.

Thank you Congress!

I am thrilled that Congress has made a positive move for the health of America’s children, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Somehow, despite my excitement, I find myself likening this much anticipated gesture a little bit to a first date. The mystery and anticipation is almost too hard to contain, making sure your make-up is just right and finding the right way to hold your shoulders so that your cow-lick looks more like shadow. Then the doorbell rings (or more appropriately, “hopefully” the door rings, otherwise it’s just downhill from there) and you are off to a night of awkward moments and small victories such as “Wow,  Thursday is my favorite day of the week, too”. But what happens the next day? Or the next week? That part is always tricky.

The passing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is integral to increasing the financial adequacy of subsidized school meals. Note: the operative word here is financial. The bill mandates USDA to develop standards associated with the school lunch line, competitive foods, vending machines, beverages, you name it. The funds have been provided, now it is up to the American public to push for food companies that profit from sales, USDA that creates the policies, and school administrators that make on-site decisions to make the choices that benefit today’s youth. We need to stay attentive to this issue so that a complacent compromise isn’t settled on creating an issue that we don’t address for yet another 30 years.

It isn’t feasible to solve malnutrition, meaning hunger and obesity both, in the next year. Just as if after a first date you called your mom and said you got engaged. Something like a 12 second pause and a “How about we have lunch tomorrow, sweetie?” may ensue. Decisions made without foundation don’t create solutions, only more discussion. Good decisions, however, need follow up. A good first date should be followed by a second, third, awkward proposal of meeting his parents, and months of learning the finer details. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is no different. We need months of refinement and innovative notions to make the passage worth our 30 year wait. To do so, we need to push local and national officials to support nutritious foods and make financial increases allocated for improvements in the food itself. It’s time to go back to the basics of food to help American youth fight the nutrition battle.