The Affordable Care Act: Preventing Childhood Obesity

This post is part of a weekly “Did You Know” blog series that highlights important, but not well known features of the health reform law about prevention, wellness, and personal responsibility for our health. 

Obese ChildDid you know that the Affordable Care Act contains measures that are designed to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic?

Today, one third of America’s youth is overweight or obese. Childhood obesity is becoming a serious threat to the health and well being of our  youth, as well as the nation’s health care spending and overall economy. Some experts are saying that today’s kids could be the first generation to not outlive their parents. This shocking news is directly related to the alarming, growing prevalence of obesity in American children and the associated severe health risks. Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is taking the lead to combat this problem so that our country can raise a healthy children and rein in the costs associated with preventable, weight-related health conditions.

Rates of childhood obesity have tripled in the last three decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), total annual costs for childhood obesity amount to $3 billion. Overweight and obese children are 70 to 80 percent more likely to become overweight or obese adults, and the total annual cost of obesity in America, including expenditures like hospital bills, prescription drugs, and lost productivity in the workplace, is up to $147 billion. The cost of hospitalization alone related to childhood obesity grew from $125.9 million in 2001 to $237.6 million in 2005

Overweight and obese children have a higher risk of developing costly chronic health conditions like high cholesterol, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and depression. Developing weight-related chronic health conditions at a young age can cause a lifetime of health complications and result in a shorter life span. In fact, research shows that children with Type 2 diabetes are less likely to graduate high school and attend college than their healthy counterparts, earn less in wages throughout their lives, and have shorter life spans.

Because obesity and the health risks associated with it are largely preventable, health reform is consistently focused on cost-effective, preventive health interventions. Currently, the Obesity Demonstration Project, created by the ACA, is funding community-based efforts that employ proven, effective health care and community strategies aimed preventing childhood obesity.  

Thanks to the health reform law, insurance companies are required to cover a set of preventive health care services specific to children’s health needs without charging a co-payment or deductible. This access to free, preventive children’s health care is available to any person with a new or non-grandfathered health plan, and is making it affordable for millions of parents to ensure their children are avoiding weight-related health problems and other preventable chronic health conditions. Services like blood pressure screening, depression and obesity screening and counseling, and height, weight and body mass index measurements, among others, are included in this significant ACA mandate.

Additionally, First Lady Michelle Obama created the Let’s Move! campaign, based on her goals of reversing the obesity trend in one generation and giving parents and children the tools they need to stay active and healthy. Let’s Move! is an initiative that is bringing healthy living awareness and education to parents, creating opportunities for children to become more physically active, and bringing healthy foods into schools across the country.

The Obama Administration’s work through the Affordable Care Act and the Let’s Move! campaign is already helping America raise a healthier generation of children and bring down the costs of health care at the individual and the national level. For more on what the Affordable Care Act is doing in the name of preventive health, see online. For more on childhood obesity, including the causes, risks, remedies, and how you can get involved, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation online.

Interested in an in-person presentation on how health reform is rolling out in Illinois and what it means for individuals? Are you a direct service provider or advocate for vulnerable populations and interested in how the Affordable Care Act will impact the population you serve? Rachel Gielau, health policy expert at the Shriver Center, is giving free in-person presentations to Illinois audiences on how health reform is affecting individual and families in Illinois. Contact Rachel Gielau at 312-368-1154 to set up a presentation for your organization! 

This blog post was coauthored by Rachel Gielau.

The Affordable Care Act: Helping Consumers Make Healthier Choices

This post is part of a weekly “Did You Know” blog series that highlights important, but not well known features of the health reform law about prevention, wellness, and personal responsibility for our health. 

Nutrition LabelDid you know that the Affordable Care Act requires large-scale restaurants and vending machines to display nutritional information at the point of purchase for consumers?

An important but mostly overlooked measure in the Affordable Care Act’s effort to combat obesity rates and bring down health care costs in the United States is likely to be noticed by consumers all over the country when it goes into effect later this year. The health reform law mandates chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to display the calorie content of standard items sold on the menu board or table menus, and to make other nutritional information, like fat, cholesterol, and fiber content, available in written form upon request. This new rule also pertains to vendors with at least 20 vending machines across the country. These vendors will have to make the calorie content of the foods sold visible to consumers at the point of purchase. Because this rule applies only to large-scale restaurants and vendors, small business owners with fewer than 20 locations will not be affected.

The goal is to make information available to consumers so they can make healthier choices when eating away from home. Studies show that consumers are increasingly getting more and more of their diets from food outside the home, from restaurants, fast food chains, and vending machines. Americans report spending almost half of their food budgets on away-from-home foods, and most parents report feeding their families restaurant-prepared meals at least once or twice a week. But American consumers know little about the nutritional value of the food they are consuming when eating out, and most tend to underestimate the number of calories and fat content in away-from-home foods. I like to think of myself as a fairly knowledgeable consumer, but I was shocked last week when I discovered that the sandwich I had ordered had over 1,000 calories—had I known the nutritional facts when I ordered, I definitely would have changed my dinner plans!

With obesity and other diet-related chronic health conditions like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease at alarming levels and on the rise in our country (two out of every three adults and one out of every three children in the U.S. are overweight or obese), nutrition and public health advocates believe that disclosing the caloric and nutritional value of foods served at restaurants and available in vending machines will help consumers make better choices about the food they eat away from home. Experts say that it is hard to tell how much nutrition labeling will affect individual consumer choice, and that more research needs to be done on this topic. However, studies show that, after nutrition labeling became mandatory for packaged foods sold in grocery stores, the demand for healthier cheeses tripled and the demand for fat-modified cookies increased 15 percent. The American Dietetic Association agrees, even small individual changes in food choice multiplied by millions of consumers can make a significant impact on public health and help improve the food supply by consumer demand. And it can bring down health care costs, both at the individual and national level, by preventing unnecessary and costly chronic health conditions often exacerbated by obesity.

While the impact of this legislation seems difficult to predict, who can argue with the notion that knowledge is power for American consumers?

For more information about the importance of nutrition in your diet and educational resources, visit the American Dietetic Association online.

For more on how the Affordable Care Act is working to combat obesity and other chronic health conditions, visit 

Interested in an in-person presentation on how health reform is rolling out in Illinois and what it means for individuals? Are you a direct service provider or advocate for vulnerable populations and interested in how the Affordable Care Act will impact the population you serve? Rachel Gielau, health policy expert at the Shriver Center, is giving free in-person presentations to Illinois audiences on how health reform is affecting individual and families in Illinois. Contact Rachel Gielau at 312-368-1154 to set up a presentation for your organization!

This blog post was coauthored by Rachel Gielau.



Clearinghouse Review Announces Its 2012 Special Issue Topic: Hunger and Food Insecurity

Knife and forkDuring the recent economic downturn, many American families became food insecure, meaning they had limited or uncertain access to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life. In 2010, 40.3 million people received monthly benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), up from 33.7 million people in 2009 and more than double the number of food stamp recipients in 2002. Participation in school meal programs also increased, and 32 million children now participate in school meal programs each day. Food insecurity is especially troublesome among older adults, given the population’s particular health and medical needs. From 2001 to 2009, the number of older Americans at risk of hunger increased by 79 percent.

The increasing prevalence of food insecurity in America has prompted Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy to choose it as its 2012 special issue topic. Every year, the Review devotes one issue to exploration of a single topic; last year’s special issue focused on applying a human rights lens to poverty law practice, and the 2010 special issue discussed climate change and green jobs.

Helping low-income people increase their access to food through benefits programs such as SNAP, the Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACPF) has long been a traditional strength of the legal services community, and Clearinghouse Review has published many articles on these topics. Recently, the Review has published articles exploring whether states should require identification requirements for SNAP participants, the use of SNAP benefits at fast-food chains, and low-income college students’ eligibility for SNAP benefits.

However, the nature of food insecurity is evolving, as are the federal and state programs that address the problem. Assisting clients with SNAP benefits has become a moving target for legal services attorneys, who are trying to help more clients get benefits in the face of state budget cutbacks that cause delays in processing times and reduce compliance with federal legal deadlines. Children, the elderly, immigrants, and people living with disabilities all face additional challenges when trying to access nutritious food through SNAP and other programs.

As the number of food-insecure Americans grows, it will not be enough for only those legal services attorneys specializing in benefits to confront the hunger problem. To end hunger in America, advocates from many disciplines—health, education, economic development, and housing, to name a few—will need to focus on food. Moreover, it will not be sufficient for these advocates to understand the changing landscape of federal and state benefit programs. To understand why so many communities are unable to secure nutritious food for all of their members, advocates need to take a close look at the communities themselves. Many low-income communities have become “food deserts” with limited access to nutritious foods. These neighborhoods also contain few safe spaces for physical activity, which has contributed to a dramatic rise in obesity over the past decade. Low-income families are also affected by food’s production, distribution, and consumption, both as workers and consumers.

The good news is that, across the country, advocates and community leaders are developing new approaches to food insecurity. Not only are they using traditional antipoverty programs in new ways, they are helping low-income people access nutritious food through farmers’ markets, community gardens, and fresh food financing initiatives. Lawyers are dismantling state-level barriers to national food programs, helping communities rezone to have more green space, incorporating the concept of a “human right to food” into their arguments, and ensuring that, as the delivery of benefits is modernized through the use of new technologies, vulnerable clients’ ability to access benefits is not compromised.. Food banks are collaborating with unexpected partners to make sure that nutritious food does not spoil before it reaches consumers. In its 2012 special issue, Clearinghouse Review hopes to showcase dynamic and diverse solutions to food insecurity from across the country so that advocates can share their expertise with one another and design new solutions to food insecurity.

If you are interested in learning more about Clearinghouse Review’s 2012 special issue, please contact Staff Attorney-Legal Editor Michele Host. The editorial team welcomes suggestions regarding topics and authors. If you or your organization is interested in sponsoring the 2012 special issue, contact Brendan Short.