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Systemic Food System Changes Can Protect Our Children’s Health

In a shocking new study published in JAMA, researchers found that 67% of calories consumed by children and young adults in 2018 came from ultra-processed foods. Over the course of 20 years, researchers analyzed trends in youth diets in hopes of unlocking the cause of obesity and other chronic metabolic diseases that follow many Americans into their adult lives. 

Take a minute to let that number sink in – 67%. Two-thirds of a child’s diet is ultra-processed foods high in sugar, salt, fat, and stabilizing chemicals. It’s no surprise that we’re seeing a decline in healthspans and more children dealing with type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and obesity than ever before. One study found that the rate of young people with type 2 diabetes increased by 95% between 2001 and 2017. This is a public health epidemic, and it’s no wonder our children are struggling to focus in school. The worst part? It’s not their fault, nor is it the fault of their parents. Our food system was designed to prop up unhealthy junk food and create inequality in real food access. 

Healthful options have become a luxury that millions of Americans don’t have access to or can’t afford. Food prices have been increasing for years while assistance benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) stayed the same. Families are forced to rely on foods that are cheap, filling, and fast to prepare. Many parents wish they could provide more whole nutrient-dense foods for their families, but with rising unemployment, especially during the pandemic, 75% of SNAP households find their monthly food budgets run out in just two weeks.

This food and nutrition insecurity disproportionately affects BIPOC communities due to structural racism, discriminatory policies, and income disparities. Our system of ‘Food Apartheid’ has intentionally created areas with a high density of stores selling ultra-processed junk food compared to healthier options – and it’s no coincidence these areas are disproportionately in communities of color. 

In an effort to begin to address the rise in food insecurity highlighted during the pandemic, the USDA has just announced the largest increase of SNAP benefits in the program’s history. Average SNAP benefits will increase by more than 25% starting in October of this year. And unlike other pandemic response benefits, this change will be permanent. The added benefits are meant to reflect the true cost of a healthy diet, but the improvement to the program alone isn’t enough to protect our children’s health. We need additional structural changes – like adding healthy grocery stores to every community, increasing access to nutritious school meals, restricting processed food advertising directed at children, and promoting neighborhood kitchens and urban agriculture – to redesign a more equitable food system. 

As free meal participation rises and universal free school meals gain momentum across the country, we’re presented with an incredible opportunity to drastically decrease the amount of ultra-processed food kids consume. All U.S. public schools are serving universal meals at no cost to families for the 2021-22 school year, thanks to pandemic relief waivers from USDA. California and Maine have become the first states to create permanent budget allocations that continue the practices indefinitely, and legislation has been introduced in Congress to make universal free school meals the norm nationwide. By helping schools serve scratch-cooked dishes made from real, whole food ingredients, we can work to ensure every child eats at least two nutritious meals a day. 

Eat REAL is leading the way towards making every school meal sourced and produced with the student’s health in mind. Our certification program provides the guidance, tools, and support for food service directors to source and serves more meals made from whole ingredients cooked from scratch. We are a trusted source for information on the power of real food and are working to bring more equity to a healthier food system. Together, we can get ultra-processed, health-harming junk food off our children’s plates.

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