- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

More than 60 percent of young children now attend preschool, the portion of students completing high school has risen to 87 percent and more high school students took honors classes in 2000 than in 1982, says an upbeat federal report card on children’s health.

A major trouble area, however, is the number of overweight and obese children, said “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being,” released today..

From 1976 to 1980, 6 percent of children were considered overweight. Between 1988 and 1994, this figure rose to 11 percent, and in the 1999-2000 period, it was 15 percent.

Black girls and Mexican-American boys are at particularly high risk for being overweight, said Dr. Edward J. Sondik, director of the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our children learn by example so, as a nation, we all need to adopt healthier diets and become more physically active,” he said.

Overall, “in most of the things we’re measuring, they’re getting better,” said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Favorable trends noted in the 2003 report include record-low childhood death rates, teen birthrates and numbers of teens who smoke every day.

In 2001, about 83 percent of children were reported by their parents to be in “very good” or “excellent” health. That compared with 79 percent of children reported in good health in 1994, according to the report, which was established in 1997 and annually compiles the latest data on 25 key indicators in children’s lives from 20 federal agencies.

Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a House hearing Wednesday that “we have an epidemic of childhood obesity.”

Overweight children tend to become overweight adults, he said. Being overweight or obese is linked to a range of serious health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and asthma, he told the House Education and the Workforce subcommittee on education reform.

“The fundamental reason that our children are overweight is this: Too many children are eating too much and moving too little,” said Dr. Carmona, who recommended portion control and exercise.

The House committee is working on legislation to reauthorize the school-lunch and school-breakfast programs; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program; and a food program for adults and children in day care.

Total funding for these programs is $12 billion a year. Some of them have been criticized for serving high-fat foods or drinks to students from low-income families, thus contributing to their weight problems. Schools also have been criticized for dropping physical-education classes while setting up vending machines filled with soda, candy and other high-calorie foods.

At the House hearing, Eric M. Bost, an undersecretary with the Department of Agriculture, recommended that Congress “streamline” applications for low-income food programs under one School Nutrition Program. Eligible families would be able to get food year-round without filing multiple applications.

The American School Food Service Association recommended that Congress eliminate “reduced-price” meals and allow free meals to all students from low-income families. Reduced-price meals cost 30 cents to 40 cents and are available to students in families whose income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line.

Mr. Bost said that eliminating the reduced-price meal program would cost taxpayers between $600 million and $700 million a year.

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