U.S. Food Law and Childhood Nutrition

Lady Justice

food for thought

Understanding the Interplay Between U.S. Food Law and Policy and Childhood Nutrition (is a daunting task)

I spend most days studying the dark corners of child nutrition. I like to explore the history and the culture, the sense and nonsense of it. This month I have the honor of digging into the impact of U.S. food and nutrition laws on childhood nutrition and health. My, my, my! What an interesting topic.

At the Root

United States laws that govern food research, growth, production, safety, marketing, and the use of chemical additives are a patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations. Law and policies, ostensibly written to ensure food safety, quality, and nutrition, may also create barriers for consumers who want to purchase affordable health-promoting foods.  Add to that our national drive for profit at any cost and the picture can become quite complex, resulting in food supply protection laws being weakened by corporate ingenuity to increase market share and economic returns. Let’s look at how this can happen.

At the federal level, Congress and multiple agencies affect and regulate the food industry. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are among the more well known. These agencies are responsible for assuring farmers have ready demand for their crop supply (Congress and USDA); that the food and pharmaceutical supply is safe for human and animal consumption (FDA); ensuring that the pesticides and herbicides our chemical companies produce in large quantities are land and water safe (EPA); and regulating the marketing that promotes or squelches public demand for specific food products and brands (FTC).

There are several other offices that work in the food arena as well. However, their relationship to our food supply may not be as obvious. For example, The Department of Justice (DOJ) enforces antitrust laws to prevent monopolistic practices in the food industry that could harm competition and consumer choice. Sadly, consumer choice often increases based on targeted marketing aimed at specific demographics such as children. There are almost no controls for that.

Subagencies, offices, and programs also contribute to the food policy landscape. Most notably, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women Infants and Children (WIC), National Scholl Lunch Program (NSLP), and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) directly funnel certain foods toward children and families. These programs are also responsible for dispersing large amounts of nutrient poor, Calorie Rich and Processed (CRaP) junk to lower income families including close to 5M 0-5 year olds receiving WIC (National and State Level Estimates of WIC Eligibility and Program Reach in 2020 | Food and Nutrition Service, 2023) 15.5M kids getting school breakfasts (School Meals Report, 2021–2022 School Year (March 2023), n.d.) That’s approximately 20M children in those 2 programs alone.

These agencies, laws, and programs and many others not named here work together to ensure the safety, quality, and integrity of the nation’s food supply. While they address issues related to nutrition, food access, and public health, they can also be a strong shield for large food growers and manufacturers protecting them from market volatility and loss of profit margin. Unfortunately for the consumer, the two purposes (protecting the buyer and protecting the seller) are frequently in conflict. Often the sellers’ needs are paramount and negatively affect child nutrition.

Impact of Food Companies Lobbying Lawmakers

Laws on campaign finance, lobbying, and corporate access to government officials also play important but less obvious roles in food availability and quality at neighborhood and national levels. This is where things get tricky.

Food companies spend billions lobbying individual lawmakers at every level of government. They go after committee members at the FDA, the USDA, the CDC and the DOJ to influence policies that benefit their company’s bottom line, even if it means promoting the consumption of high-fat, sugary, and salty, potentially harmful foods. These lobbying efforts can lead to the relaxation of regulations, or the blocking of initiatives aimed at promoting healthier food choices. As a result, policies that prioritize public health may be delayed or diluted, allowing food companies to continue marketing, and selling products that contribute to poor dietary habits and health outcomes, particularly among children. For example, food industry lobbyists may oppose measures such as soda or sugar sweetened drink taxes, or restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods to children, arguing that such regulations would hurt businesses and limit consumer freedom of choice. In this way, they can influence our eating patterns, our food culture and ultimately the health of our children.

The influence of food industry lobbyists can be especially concerning in communities with high rates of poverty, where access to affordable, nutritious foods is already limited. In these communities, the prevalence of cheap, ultra-processed foods marketed by big food corporations can worsen health disparities and contribute to the cycle of poor nutrition, chronic disease, and early death.

The Importance of Childhood Nutrition

It is common knowledge that appropriate nutrition during childhood lays the foundation for long-term health and well-being. We also know that adequate intake of essential nutrients is crucial for proper growth and development, cognitive function, and overall health. However, because corporations are allowed to market to children, and the other facets of food culture in the US mentioned above, almost all children here, regardless of circumstances or family of origin, face obstacles accessing nutritious foods. This contributes to the rising rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancers, and heart disease among our youth.

Impact of Junk Food Marketing on Children, Especially Black and Brown Children

While efforts have been made to improve child nutrition, the pervasive marketing of junk food, particularly to Black and Brown children, remains a significant concern. Food companies often target these communities with aggressive marketing tactics, promoting unhealthy foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fat as well as chemical additives, preservatives, artificial flavors, and dyes.

Studies have shown that Black and Brown children are disproportionately exposed to advertisements for sugary drinks, fast food, and unhealthy snacks. This targeted marketing contributes to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases among these children.

Chemicals and Carcinogens in the Food Supply

In addition to the marketing of unhealthy foods, another challenge to child nutrition is the presence of chemicals and carcinogens in the food supply. While US food law prohibits the use of certain harmful substances, there are many questionable chemicals in food products at all phases of farming, development, processing, and packaging.

For example, the use of pesticides, food additives, dyes, and preservatives is regulated by the FDA and EPA. While these chemicals are intended to improve food safety and shelf life, some studies have raised concerns about their long-term health effects, particularly on children.

Children are more vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals due to their rapid physical development and higher rates of food consumption relative to their body weight. Exposure to pesticides and other contaminants has been linked to a range of health issues, including developmental delays, hormone disruption, and cancer. Many of these chemicals are banned in the European Union, but they are used frequently here, regardless of the known negative consequences to child health. (Williams & Lyall, 2023)

Not So Fun Fact

More than10,000 chemical substances are allowed in foods to modify flavor, color, stability, texture, or cost. In addition, an estimated 12,000 substances are used in such a way that they may unintentionally enter the food supply. These substances include components of food-packaging materials, processing aids, pesticide residues, and drugs given to animals. An unknown number of naturally occurring chemical contaminants also find their way into food.

(Food Chemicals | Environmental Working Group, n.d.)

Challenges and Opportunities

While progress has been made in improving child nutrition through various initiatives, significant challenges remain. These include issues such as food insecurity, inadequate access to healthy foods in underserved communities, the prevalence of marketing unhealthy foods to children, and the presence of harmful chemicals in the food supply.

To truly impact child nutrition outcomes, there is a need for comprehensive policies that address food equity issues. This includes increasing access to affordable, nutritious foods in underserved areas, supporting local food systems, and promoting food education and literacy. The US government would only support the nation’s children if the physical and emotional health of the community drove the policy and law decisions instead of private interests and financial gain. Until that becomes the norm, it is up to each person and community to police the food supply for the health of our children. Eliminate CRaP foods and animal products as far as possible to support your children’s growth, development, and long-term health. Vote with your dollars and promote healthy food for our children.

National and State Level Estimates of WIC Eligibility and Program Reach in 2020 | Food and Nutrition Service. (2023, November 3). Www.fns.usda.gov. https://www.fns.usda.gov/research/wic/eligibility-and-program-reach-estimates-2020

School Meals Report, 2021–2022 School Year (March 2023). (n.d.). Food Research & Action Center. https://frac.org/research/resource-library/school-meals-2023#:~:text=Food%20Research%20%26%20Action%20Center

Food Chemicals | Environmental Working Group. (n.d.). Www.ewg.org. https://www.ewg.org/areas-focus/toxic-chemicals/food-chemicals

Williams, H., & Lyall, E. (2023, February 20). U.S. food additives banned in Europe: Expert says what Americans eat is “almost certainly” making them sick. Www.cbsnews.com. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-food-additives-banned-europe-making-americans-sick-expert-says/

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