By Leila Hilal, MD.
Pandemic, epidemic – these words have become part of our everyday vocabulary in the light of COVID-19 over the past few years. However, we cannot forget the other illness that plagues our society, threatening the wellbeing and growth of our younger generations. Childhood obesity is an ever-growing problem that is affecting our communities, leading to chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure in adulthood.
Children experiencing poverty are most at risk.
As a family medicine resident physician, I have the honor and privilege of taking care of my patients throughout their entire lives. Over the past year or two, I have had a troubling scenario repeat itself in my clinic:
A parent brings their children to their annual check-ups, and unfortunately, they are struggling to provide food, let alone healthy options due to rising food prices. Their child’s weight has gone up and they are now considered obese, greater than the 95th percentile in the weight category for their age. This is distressing to the parent, but what can they do? They rely on the meals at school if they can afford it to make sure they’re at least getting lunch.
Sens. Fetterman, Whitehouse, and Welch’s proposed legislation to cancel school lunch debt nationwide has come at a critical time in our national recovery from the pandemic. Food insecurity and childhood obesity have skyrocketed. The expiration of a temporary program that provided free school meals for all has left families struggling to feed their children, let alone worry if the food they can provide is up to nutritional standards.
National programs do exist such as the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, but many families that struggle to make ends meet are not considered “poor enough” to qualify for reduced price or free meals.
The Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) was a national standard implemented in 2012 to improve the nutritional quality of meals at school. A 2020 study of the impact of the HHFKA showed that children in poverty experienced a 9% annual decrease in the probability of having obesity. This suggests that improved nutrition in school lunches lowers the risk of obesity for children experiencing poverty, giving them a better chance to avoid chronic illnesses as an adult.
Eliminating school lunch debt would allow children in poverty to have access to consistent nutritious meals that they may not otherwise be able to receive at home, improving their future health. The relatively modest federal costs of absorbing school lunch debts would likely be outweighed by the financial benefits of preventing multiple chronic illnesses as an adult for each of these children.
As a physician who ensures the wellbeing of children and strongly believes in the benefits of preventive medicine, I strongly support the legislation to have school lunch debts paid by the US Department of Agriculture. Children should not have differential access to nutritious food based on their families’ finances, and they should not have to suffer chronic life-altering consequences of a solvable problem.
Dr. Leila Hilal is a second-year Family Medicine resident at Lancaster General Hospital in Lancaster, Pa. She has a medical degree from Drexel University College of Medicine and an undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She is passionate about preventative medicine and works in both the inpatient and outpatient settings in Lancaster.
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