By: Audrey Rowe, Administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture 

As I travel through the country visiting school cafeterias and summer meals sites, I am amazed at the progress being made to advance the health of our nation’s children. Museums, recreation centers and libraries are opening their doors to ensure all kids receive healthy, balanced meals this summer. More communities are applying for universal meal services and programs to benefit income-eligible families. 

I also can’t say enough about efforts being undertaken in Latino communities to enhance the nutritional quality of meals.  Our partnerships with the National Hispanic Medical Association, advocacy groups such as the National Council of La Raza, and media outlets like LATINO Magazine have generated greater nutritional awareness and promoted better health practices in Latino households and schools. These improvements are an essential response to the paradox we face as a country, where the simultaneous challenges of hunger and obesity are burdening far too many of our communities.

Thirty years ago, many  children walked or bicycled to school, enjoyed longer recesses, played outdoors more frequently, and ate meals that were both home-cooked and nutritious. Now, transportation, entertainment, and the availability of “fast” foods have altered lifestyles, often reducing the amount of physical activity and compromising a youngsters’ nutritional intake. Today, nearly 40 percent of Latino children are overweight or obese and 29 percent of Hispanic households now include hungry children.

LATINO Magazine’s NO MAS HAMBRE Summit has made great progress over the past four years to bring attention to these issues. The most recent one, in Washington D.C., focused on contributing factors of poor nutrition in Latino communities.  The event showcased the strong partnership and sound policy that have played roles in both the grassroots and political arenas.

Representatives from the National Hispanic Medical Association, Feeding America, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Alliance to End Hunger and others participated in the conversation.  It was a dialogue that centered on community engagement, awareness, advocacy and ways to enact substantive change in our nation’s health habits and food policy.  Many discussions detailed how family income, neighborhood environments, substandard infrastructure, and lack of health insurance contributed to the incidence of hunger and obesity in Latino communities.       

Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico opened the summit, calling for civic engagement with congressional members in an effort to reform food policy. “For the first time in history,” she said, “Congress does not have a bipartisan standpoint on poverty.” She’s absolutely right.  Millions of Americans today are forced to choose between paying for utility bills, prescription medication, fuel for their car, and quality food.  Meanwhile, Americans are met with the challenge of convincing government officials of the importance of funding nutrition programs and how effective nutrition policies improve the quality of our citizens’ lives.  Every day, we must renew our commitment to ensuring that infants, children, adults, and seniors have affordable access to healthy, balanced meals.   

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHKA) to promote quality nutrition, reduce obesity rates and cultivate a healthier next generation. This legislation ensures that healthier breakfast, lunch, and snacks will be offered in our schools. It also helps school districts, administrators and food service professionals adapt to the new nutritional standards. 

Moving forward with this policy, we reached out to the public and scientific communities for feedback. Panels of experts from the Institute of Medicine provided a comprehensive health analysis. Their 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans served as the Federal Government’s benchmark for nutrition, offering practical and flexible solutions to supplement the new standards. Along with scientific research, USDA received thousands of comments and suggestions from parents, food service professionals, and other stakeholders.

Since the passing of the HHFKA, kids are snacking on more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, and eating breakfast at much higher rates than before. For school districts, there has been a substantial increase in farm-to-school programs, boosting local economies through healthy food purchases.  Over 90 percent of schools have reported success in meeting the new standards, with a nationwide net increase in lunch revenue.  For communities, the Community Eligibility Provision, part of the HHFKA, allows school districts to offer free school meals to all students in high poverty school districts.   

We are making progress in improving child nutrition and we can’t and we won’t slow down now. As many of the summit’s panelists said, we need the backing of parents in the home and teachers in the classrooms to educate children on the importance of healthy, balanced meals. USDA also welcomes the support of doctors and nurses to help guide and monitor the diets of children and to influence policies that will make healthcare more accessible. On behalf of the Obama Administration I promise to work to ensure that meal programs benefit children,, so they get the quality food they need to excel and thrive. Working in partnership, we have the power to improve the diets of our children, and enhance the quality of their lives. And I am looking forward to creating a country de no mas hambre contigo

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