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National Childhood Nutrition/Health

June 8th, 2010 by Erinn Andrews Leave a reply »

This is our next, and last research cause for a little while. Then we will focus on getting up the results of all our work onto our site so donors can start donating to these outstanding nonprofits experts have recommended.

If you are an expert in the childhood nutrition/health field, you should be receiving an email from us soon and we hope you will be compelled to participate! If for some reason we have missed you and you think you have a valuable perspective to offer, please contact me at

Additionally, I’m sure I haven’t been able to capture every nuance in these sectors, so I invite your feedback and thoughts about how you might think about this work. For those readers less familiar with this topic, I hope you will learn something new and tune in again when we have the results of this research. Thank you all for your participation!


Over the last few years, high obesity rates have been making news headlines. And then this year, First Lady, Michelle Obama announced her Let’s Move childhood obesity initiative. The goal of this campaign is to reverse the trend of childhood obesity in one generation so kids today can grown up healthy and well. In addition, the Childhood Nutrition Act (a federal program that that addresses the food served in schools) is up for reauthorization this year, so childhood nutrition/health is a timely and important topic in the US.

Through this research, we will be looking at childhood nutrition and health with a specific lens on obesity. The childhood nutrition experts with whom I spoke said their goal as a sector is to get kids the right amount of healthy calories and then have them expend those calories through physical activity. They call this the energy equation. This equation involves two main parts: healthy food and physical activity. We will be looking at both parts for this research.

While we won’t be focused on childhood hunger as part of this research, it is important to acknowledge the tension that exists between these sectors. The professionals who are focused on childhood hunger want to make sure kids are getting enough or any food. There is a conflict between this group and the childhood obesity professionals because some childhood obesity experts worry that the childhood hunger people don’t care what the kids are eating as long as they have something to eat. The fear is that childhood hunger will lead to childhood obesity problems later on. The experts with whom I spoke said the most effective campaigns and strategies will involve both parties working together to get all children access to healthy food options.

In order to learn more about this field, I asked childhood nutrition/health experts what organizations were doing to reduce obesity rates and make kids healthier. As you might imagine, there are a number of areas nonprofits are focused on. They might try to impact school food, school physical activity, nutrition education, community playgrounds, access to food in communities, media campaigns, video games, and more.

School Food: Kids need to have access to healthier foods in school and many experts believe it’s our responsibility as a society to provide kids with healthy food options in school. There are some nonprofits trying to get more local food into the school lunches. (This is known as the farm-to-school movement.) However, for schools to serve this healthier food they need the money to afford the new food and they need new equipment to prepare the food (no longer just fryers). Proponents of reauthorizing the Childhood Nutrition Act want to increase the money available to schools so they can buy the healthier food and can buy the equipment to prepare the food in a healthier way. They also want the USDA to have better oversight around regulations and more say in the quality of the food served in schools.

In addition to focusing on better food, there is a movement to get rid of sodas and unhealthy snacks from schools. The Clinton Foundation worked with a Generation for a Healthier Alliance and beverage companies in order to get sodas out of schools. This is quite controversial because, as one might imagine, the major soda companies are opposed to this movement. However, there is conclusive data that sodas and sweetened beverages are connected to obesity rates. There’s no nutritional value in those drinks and kids drink 800 calories a day in the form of liquids/drinks. Proponents of getting rid of sodas in school say that’s just too many calories to be able to burn through physical activity. Yet soda companies argue that kids just need to exercise more.

Why is better food at school important? The main argument for getting better food into schools is that healthier students make better learners. However, it’s also important to note that healthier children lead healthier lives later on which benefits society in general.

School Physical Activity: Another area in schools (and out of schools) that is addressing childhood health is through physical activity and play. To fulfill the second half of the energy equation, experts believe children need to have physical education classes and recess planned into their day, which also means having a playground and playground equipment.

To incentivize schools to make these changes, some experts want to redefine what constitutes an excellent school. They want health and wellness to be a consideration for determining excellence in education. That is, do the schools serve healthy food?, is there recess?, do they have physical education?, do they have a breakfast program?, etc.

Nutrition Education: Nutrition education is another area to focus on to teach kids how to make better choices. Getting kids to plant school gardens is a great way to teach students about vegetables and other healthy foods. Kids get to watch the vegetables grow, learn more about them, and interact with the food they’re growing.

However, nutrition education can go beyond the child and can be for parents and schools, as well. Parents are likely the ones who will be preparing food for their kids so it’s important for them to understand how to make healthy choices about food. Empowering schools is equally important so that school administrators can provide healthy options for kids.

The obesity prevention world is bigger than just the schools, however. It also carries over into the community.

Community: play spaces: Another route nonprofits and childhood nutrition/health experts take is working through the community. They focus on making walkways accessible and creating more sidewalks to encourage physical activity. They focus on making sure there are parks in neighborhoods so children have a place to play and that those parks are open long enough to allow kids to play there. And they focus on making neighborhoods safer so that parents will let their kids go to the park, ride their bike, etc.

Community: access to fresh foods: There is also a focus on urban planning where the goal is to get more grocery stores into communities. Some places just have a deli or convenient store, others don’t have any food for miles (these areas are called “food deserts”). Another problem is that farmers markets often don’t take food stamps, so it’s hard to get healthy food to the lowest-income population this way from local growers.

Other: There are other ways groups are trying to make kids healthier, as well. There have been media campaigns to teach parents about body mass index (BMI). Video game companies are making an effort to help kids through sports video games where kids have to get up and move around to play. And some advocacy and policy groups are trying to get the Federal Trade Commission to regulate the marketing campaigns of unhealthy food providers. Food marketing to kids is a major problem various groups are trying to address.

How to Affect Change

There are a few different perspectives about the most effective way to make a positive change in the childhood nutrition/health field. Some people believe in direct education to kids and parents with a focus on behavior changing activities.

Others focus on the environment and making it easy for adults and kids to choose the healthy options and exercise. They do this by focusing on the school environment (providing the healthy food options, removing sodas, building in gym and recess periods, etc.) and the community environment (bringing in fresh foods to neighborhoods, making streets safe, providing playgrounds and playground equipment, etc.).

What Kinds of Nonprofits

Nonprofits in this field might focus on creating this change through policy and advocacy. This could be helping schools set nutrition standards, physical education policies, recess policies, etc. Others might focus on doing the research to show which programs are most effective, to identify where the problem lies, etc. Others might focus on direct services to provide the physical activity opportunities, bring in healthy food to schools, teach kids about healthy options, etc.

Interestingly, the physical activity and nutrition piece often exist independently. Rarely do funders fund both together. Through our research, we’d like to look at both because we believe both are important to solving the problems in childhood nutrition/health.

Scope of the Research

Therefore, the scope of this research will be focused on childhood nutrition/health nonprofits with a particular focus on childhood obesity, food nutrition, and physical activity. We would like to consider nonprofits working at the national or multi-state level, or that are developing a model that has the potential to scale and make an impact at that level.  These organizations could be focused on access to healthy foods and drinks in schools, nutrition education, physical activity programs and policies in or out of schools, access to safe play spaces for kids in their communities, access to healthy and fresh foods for kids in their neighborhoods, media campaigns to promote health and nutrition for kids, etc. These nonprofits should primarily be focused on impacting the lives of children, though secondarily could focus on adults and school administrators. And these nonprofits might focus on different kinds of activities: policy, research, advocacy, direct services, education, etc. The primary focus of this research will not be on food deserts, public transit, and helping local farmers or other for-profit organizations.

These are just a summary of my notes after having talked to 10 experts in the childhood nutrition/health field. What do you think? What have I missed? What might you add? Please feel free to leave a comment and help build on these notes.


  1. One of the ways Heartland Foundation is tackling this issue is by engaging students in problem-solving through an innovative civic education curriculum and program we created called emPower Plant. Issues students work on are broad-based; however, we also position more health-related concerns to creatively challenge students on finding community solutions to issues of importance like childhood obesity, healthier foods in schools, etc. To date, more than 13,000 students from nearly 100 schools in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa have been involved. We find that young people have extraordinary ideas when empowered to make a difference.

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