The next step in state Rep. Douglas Youngue's mission to address childhood obesity may be even harder than getting lawmakers to take on the cause.
The Legislative Task Force on Childhood Obesity on Monday announced 14 recommendations to help make healthy living a way of life for children, from their daily activities to what they eat and do in school. That would save money on health costs in the long run. But in the short run, the next step is to turn the proposals into laws that would cost the state millions of dollars.
The task force's endeavor is part of a nationwide effort to address childhood obesity, including Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.
The recommendations come as public school child nutrition programs across the state are struggling to provide healthful food to students in the face of rising costs and the temptation to turn to better selling, but less healthy items to help meet their budgets.
The committee, composed of six members each from the House and Senate, spent four months examining childhood obesity and its impact on the state's schools, health system and economy. The members reviewed state health numbers and heard testimony from child nutrition, education and health experts. It took Youngue about six years to convince lawmakers that this was an issue worth exploring, he said.
Many of the recommendations call for more money for school lunchrooms. But with a price tag in the millions, some suggestions will have difficulty becoming law while the state has limited funds, Youngue says.
"I know money is going to be short, but we need to address the issues of increasing health costs," said Youngue, a Democrat from Laurinburg. "And you do it by addressing one of the major causes of health problems, and that is the overweight and obese population that we have. We're going to have to find some money somewhere to put out the fire. And once we put out the fire, on the other end we're going to be saving money because we'll have healthy children and healthy adults."
One recommendation would eliminate the reduced-price lunch category at a cost $5.2 million. This would qualify an additional 100,000 students to receive free lunches, according to the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina, and the lunches are partly reimbursed by the federal government. The additional free-lunch students would bring in about $5 million more in federal money.
Another proposal calls for increasing breakfast and lunch prices by 5 cents to pay for increased nutritional standards, which have been on the books since 2006 but unfunded because of the rising cost of food. Many schools have implemented these standards on their own but have lost money doing so.
These proposals translate into 11 new bills that, if passed, will turn the recommendations into law. Appropriate House and Senate committees will now examine the task force's suggestions and the bills drafted from them.
Child nutrition officials think Monday's recommendations represent a turn in the right direction for the state.
"This is a huge step for beginning to make the changes needed in communities, in schools, in any venue," said Lynn Harvey, who oversees child nutrition for the Department of Public Instruction.
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