“When we have to work toward policy change, the people we're convincing are the adults, not the kids. They're on board. They have creative ideas, they're super open. They want it to be healthyThey want their families to be healthy.”
Jennifer Weber joins Shireen to explore how government policies can determine the status of children’s health and adequately address their nutritional needs. She analyzes existing programs and suggests policy changes at all levels of government that can improve children’s health. Tune in to learn more about how you can get involved with childhood health and nutrition advocacy efforts.
Jennifer Weber is an advocate for children’s health and well-being with experience building effective strategies and partnerships. She translates science into understandable and actionable messages for organizations, policymakers, and communities.
Shireen: Today, Jennifer Weber explores government policies’ power in determining the status of children's health and adequately addressing their nutritional needs. She suggests changes to our policies to continue to improve children's health at all levels of government and analyzes the existing program and initiatives targeting these areas. Continue listening to learn more about how you can get involved in childhood health and nutritional advocacy efforts.
Podcasting from Dallas, Texas. I am Shireen and this is the Yumlish podcast. Yumlish is working to empower you, to take charge of your health through diet and exercise and reduce the risk of chronic conditions like type two diabetes and heart disease. We hope to share a unique perspective and a culturally relevant approach to managing these chronic conditions with you each week.
Jennifer Weber is an advocate for children's health and wellbeing with experience building effective strategies and partnerships. She translates science into understandable and actionable messages for organizations, policymakers, and communities. Welcome Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
Shireen: It's a pleasure to have you on. So Jennifer, tell us what inspired you to pursue a career in children's health?
Jennifer: My background is in nutrition and dietetics. When I was first practicing, I was working with adults with chronic diseases and it just really struck me how difficult it was to help those adults pursue a healthy life at adulthood when they didn't have those opportunities when they were children. And it just really struck me that we needed to create healthier environments, support, healthier environments for children. And that's what led me down this path.
SHireen: Interesting. So tell us what is the current status of children's health and their nutritional needs in the United States and in particular, what areas need improvement?
Jennifer: Well, this is certainly very challenging right now. COVID has really negatively impacted children's health. it accentuated the challenges that we had before. Most obviously food insecurity. We've seen increases in food insecurity over the past 18 months and almost one in five children are living in food insecure households right now.
So that is certainly a great concern. And in addition to that, if we look at nutrition, specifically, children are not consuming enough fruits and vegetables. Adults are not also consuming enough fruits and vegetables, but certainly concerned for children. And then they're consuming too many sugary and sweet foods. So, that proportion of the food that children are consuming is concerning. And of course, I need to note that we also want to make sure kids are being physically active and. You know, only about one in four children are getting the amount of physical activity, which is 60 minutes of physical activity a day. So those are, those are some of the overarching challenges that we're seeing right now.
Shireen: So how do policies factor in at the local state federal levels to really maintain children's health initiatives and also perpetuate sort of for health?
Jennifer: Very true that policy at all three of those levels, federal state, local, and then even some smaller ones at school level impact children's health.
And so if we look at what that looks like, many of the programs that support children's health are structured and funded at the national level. So that might be where the funding comes from, where the overarching guidelines come from. But then that funnels to the state and state governments often.
And so then they may put additional guidelines or parameters around that to look at how the programs can actually be implemented. And then when you look at who actually is implementing that program, who's the direct line to, implementing these policies or programs to the kids that happens at the local level.
So we very often see the federal, state, and local level tiering of initiatives for children. And you see that with federal food programs. So, the stamp program, supplemental nutrition assistance program, the WIC program, which is supplemental nutrition program for women, infant children, school meals, all of those programs, the structure is developed at the federal level, but then implementation flows down to the local level.
Shireen: Can you walk us through an example of, of something like this, where there was a federal policy around children's health and how it trickled down?
Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, one, one example, um, that is, is a good one. And I'll talk about how it operates. And then also how it's impacted during COVID is school meals. So the national school lunch program, also called school breakfast program. That is the federal program. It is funded at the federal level, it is a program that all students have access to. And so the structure of the program, the overall nutrition guidelines of the program, eligibility costs of the program, that's determined at the federal level. Some of those just designations are made in long Congress. you know, determines them. So that is designated to the federal agency that has oversight, which is the US Department of Agriculture. So there's those federal, the federal structure of the program, but then those funds go to the state. So in each state, it might be in most states, it's the department of education.
They have the oversight for that program and they may say, okay, here's the standards that the federal government put in place. We have to follow that. But they might put additional guidelines in place or they might require additional training for the people that work in that program. And they are responsible for oversight of the school districts.
Then at the local level that local school district is one that's determining, you know, what actual foods are being served. You know, the federal government is saying you have to serve, you know, broccoli. I mean, those decisions are made at the local level. The paperwork and enrollment. That's all happening at the local level, advocating for the program, trying to get kids to participate. Those are things that all happen at the local level. And so I think oftentimes people hear policy and they think it is something that happens, you know, way over, somewhere in Washington, DC. But these issues of how the programs are directly implemented happen at the local level.
And especially in this with foods we've seen lots of advocacy bubble up from the local level around wanting to have culturally appropriate foods, really advocating for local foods or more fresh foods. And so there's a lot to play there. And I think this program is particularly interesting when we look at the impact of COVID and the schools shutting down.
So we know that, you know, many kids receive one, if not two meals at school, and then that whole system, right, that, that went away. The amazing thing was how quickly the school nutrition directors, school districts, state, federal government really one into action to try and still provide food for those kids in a setting where, where a school was not in place and that, you know, is not easy from a logistic factor, but there were also laws and regulations that had to be waived.
And so a bunch of waivers were put in place. Some were around nutrition standards to allow some flexibility so that schools could, you know, get food and serve it. Also on eligibility, A lot of places went into providing free meals for all. So instead of having a tiered system of full price, reduced price and, you know, costume meals for students, which is the standard they put in, you know, free, free meals for all, which really helps to promote and get students in, but it also really helped the schools not have to deal with, you know, lots of paperwork and challenging situations.
I think all of these, you, you have to have strong policies and regulations in place, but it also showed how, you know, in these really difficult trying times there was flexibility, flexibility put in place. And we've learned a lot from this and in a lot of places now are advocating for free meals to continue, especially as we really saw how important school meals were for the nutrition status of children over the past year.
Shireen: What policy changes do you think should be made at each of these levels to really improve children's health and better meet their nutritional needs?
Jennifer: I mean, I think there's a, there's a couple of overarching things. One is, you know, it's so important that kids are surrounded by these healthy environments.
We talk about, or you hear people talk about, we need to teach children to be healthy. And I, I agree with that, but there's only so much we can expect children to do when they're surrounded in these environments that aren't healthy and especially younger children, they don't have choices. Adults are making the choices for them. And so we, I really think, you know, it is on us as adults to have policies that support a healthy environment for kids. And that can look a lot of different ways. That could be, you know, making sure that all the choices in the school are healthy food choices, that we're exposing children to a variety of things at young ages and at childcare centers that we are being really careful about what foods are being marketed to children on the different devices and activities that there are.
The other piece I think is so important is thinking about equity and access in the policies that we're passing, you know, and that the voices and perspectives and beliefs of those that would be impacted by the policies are included. I think there's been a lot more movement in this, but you know, there still is this thought of, well, we know that the need, you know, should be eating healthy. So here's the three things we're going to say, we're going to teach them nutrition, you know, something, something. But that community might not be their biggest concern. So that voice, the community I think is so important. And I'll just say, when I talk about the voice of the community, that includes kids and youth, They are so creative in their solutions. And a lot of my work with children uses what has struck me as that when we have to work toward policy change, the people we're convincing are the adults, not the kids. They're on board. They have creative ideas, they're super open. They want it to be healthyThey want their families to be healthy.
And so making sure that the youth voice is included is really important. So I think that, you know, those issues. And the equity of thinking about it, being the environment, not just the individual, are really important pieces across the board, no matter what the policy is that you're looking at.
Shireen: And so walk us through some examples of what this looks like in a community, trying to combat chronic illness and risk factors for diabetes.
Jennifer: Yeah. You know, so a couple examples just from the community where, where I live in, and one is looking at federal nutrition programs. So snap that's a supplemental nutrition assistance program that provides electronic benefit for families to, to purchase. That's a federal program. but again, that enrollment happens at the local level. And so, you know, we have an organization or community working closely with the health department to do outreach about the program, to make sure people know it exists. They go to schools or different community events, faith organizations, and help people sign up and enroll in the program. We can have these federal programs, initiatives, but if you don't have people participating in them, they're sort of being, we're losing the opportunity to that benefit.
Another piece of that is many local communities have done, um, what they call bonus box or double up bucks with snap, where a local could be a nonprofit business putting extra funds. So if people use that benefit at a farmer's market to get fruits and vegetables, they get doubled the dollar. So it's an incentive, right? We are trying to give people more buying power around foods that we know are short and children's diets, you know, and, and support that. And then also support the local economy.
So, you know, it gets the business community engaged. I think those are things where you can look at others in the community and see the benefit is really important. Um, you know, other things that happen, you know, at the local level, definitely. We've seen a lot of work around. Promoting walking to school.
Again, some of these are school focused because kids are going back to school this year. Right. We're really excited to have them back in that space. but you know, the concept of attendance engagement in school is really important. We also know that it can be a challenge for some kids to get to school.
And so there's been lots of work on safe routes to school, walking school buses, where you really look at, can we have a safe environment for our kids to walk to school? And again, this is one of those, I think it's a great example of a double impact, um, because schools want kids to be in the seats.
And so if you put together a walking school bus where someone's coming along and right, like picking up kids, walking is really focused on safe routes to schools. Kids are getting physically active and they're getting into school. And so often in, when we look at nutrition and how, it's, you know, looking at what's the double win.
The triple win is really important. No, one's against nutrition per se, but it's really hard often to get nutrition, to be high in the priority list of all the other challenges and issues that policymakers are facing.
Shireen: And of course with all of my biases as well, I wish nutrition got more time of day because it's so incredibly important. You know, you, you mentioned a couple of minutes ago about how parents are making those food decisions at home. They're making those food choices. Again, just going back to policy and even community based initiatives, what is being done outside of the school setting, looking at more of the family holistically?
Jennifer: Yeah. So in a lot of those cases again, there's really good initiatives to work on educating children and their parents around, you know, what, what healthy meals look like. Assuming that they have the resources and the capacity and the skills, right. To be able to do that. So, any issues again that are looking at food access really, again, participation in programs, federal programs is really important.
There's also work happening around what's called healthy food financing initiatives. So looking at communities, we look at, you know, What is food availability and communities, and then what resources are there that we could work with to improve food access. So healthy food financing works with corner stores or bodegas or places in the community that maybe have shelf stable items. but perhaps don't have the healthiest items available. And why is that in? What do they need? And so many times those are, they don't have refrigeration or they don't have a supplier or they, they don't have perhaps a consistent customer base for those food items and that provides additional foods to help them, that you know, is a really important, I think that’s a big one.
Many of the federal feeding programs, you know, that work outside of schools really target mothers and children and getting healthy foods into their hands. So those pieces are all important. And then, you know, I think as we look at it again, the environment that our kids are in and the images that they see.
And the advertising and marketing that they're exposed to for those have been quite a long time where we've been working around trying to limit, you know, marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids. Some communities have taken that on and they've looked at it in different ways. Some communities have really worked on altering the kids' meals at a quick serve, fast food restaurants so that, you know, they take, so does not the default, um, beverage it's milk or water, and those changes make a big difference. People do tend to order the default thing on a menu. So if kids are going to order a kid's meal and it's milk or water instead of a sugary soda that makes a big difference. Other places have really worked on trying to get those incentives out of kids' meals and not having the choice with them.
And those are just all things to try. Change some of the norms maybe that we've put into place or things that, you know, if a parent's going for a quick meal and we just, you know, a couple of things are subbed out in that meal. It makes it healthier. That makes it a whole lot easier for the parents. So, you know, easier, less stressful, less, less debate with the child are all things that can make a big difference for parents.
And then putting more purchasing power in their hands, you know, for, for parents who are struggling and have limited resources. Any of those programs that can give them more purchasing power makes a difference.
Shireen: Let's talk about the work that still needs to be done. So what advocacy efforts are being done to address these needs and in childhood health and nutrition and then how can folks get involved?
Jennifer: Yeah, well, so with, you know, with policies and programs, those are always under review funding is under review every year. So there has to be a consistent drum beat. So there are, you know, advocacy groups at the, at the national level that every year we are, you know, advocating for funds for nutrition programs, the prevention programs that centers for disease control operate that fund to the states for healthy campaigns, for healthy water, things like that. You know, those are things that we are advocating for every year ad then there are certain five-year cycles where some of these major programs get reviewed. So those are important, but, you know, I mean, these conversations are happening all the time at the, at the local level as well.
And you know, for people that are interested in being involved locally, the first thing I would say is, you know, that your voice is important. And sometimes people say, well, like I'm not an expert in this, you know, I don't want to say the wrong thing or what if they ask something and I don't know the answer you.
You have a voice and you are important. So, you know, that's the first thing to think about. And then what are you passionate about? You know, are you passionate about the food that is served at your faith organization that you go to? Is there a park down the street that you are concerned about? You can just start there and, you know, talk to someone at that organization or look at your county, parks and rec.
If you want something a little more structured, every local district has to have a school health pilot policy council, or school health advisory board that the public sits on. Many communities have a food policy council that, you know, they have, they have members and they might need volunteers, but they also are there to get public input.
Do you know what, what is it you're passionate about? Is it little kids, you know, is it school aged kids? Do you want to use advocacy and get youth voices out there? We need every voice in this space. And so, you know, it's, it's not bad to start locally and, and see, if that's not for you or what your like is, I want to write a letter or send an email, you know, and something at the, at the federal level, you know, there are many groups that work in this space.
The Food Research and Action Center is a really strong anti-hunger group. There's a group called MomsRising that takes voices of lots of moms, many groups that are tied to different racial, ethnic groups and, and many of them have what we call action alerts, where you can go in and, you know, put in your zip code and it helps give you some talking points to wait and at the federal level.
So there's so many ways to get involved. I'm happy to guide people. I mean, I work with organizations to help bright set up talking points and guidance and training for advocates to, you know, to get comfortable with sharing their knowledge and expertise, because really that, you know, that's what we're doing is connecting people to the policymakers so they can share your input in and your voice always matters.
And you have experienced that need. They need to hear from me. And then I'll just say, you know, we can't assume that someone else's speaking for us. I, I mentioned this earlier you know, we, we don't generally have people who say they're against healthy children, right? I mean, everyone wants to have healthy children, but when we are talking about, you know, investing money in these initiatives means wanting something new, a policy campaign or advocacy movement. We are competing for space and attention. And so we need more voices and new voices in that conversation. And so, so interesting. So even within our own individual sphere, there is a lot that we can do . We have to understand exactly what to do either on the local or federal level.
Shireen: So with that Jennifer, we’re near the end of the episode. How can our listeners connect with you and learn more about you?
Jennifer: Yeah, thank you. So I do have a website which is webermoorepartners.com. I'm also on Twitter @jWeberVA is one and then a company is @WeberMooreLLC. So those are both ways to connect with me.
And you know, if you go to the website, you can connect with me by email or message me. I'm super happy to talk with advocates, you know, Just say as a wrap up. I mean, I started out, I, you know, I'm a registered dietician and I worked in a clinical setting. I would have never thought I would be, you know, doing policy and advocacy work.
And I went from that, you know, to being a registered lobbyist and doing policy advocacy across many levels. So it is something that we all can do and I'm happy to, you know, help individuals or organizations work out that.
Shireen: Thank you so much for, for your time. It was an absolute pleasure having you on.
Jennifer: Thank you. It was my pleasure to be here.
Shireen: Lovely. And for listeners out there, head over towards social media on Facebook and let us know what's one policy change you want to see in your community related to children's health and nutrition. You can find us at Yumlish_ on Facebook, head over there and tell us what is that one policy change you want to see in your community related to children's health in nutrition. We will see you there after the episode, Jennifer. And thank you again.
Shireen: Thank you for listening to the Yumlish Podcast. Make sure to follow us on social media @Yumlish_ on Instagram and Twitter and @Yumlish on Facebook and LinkedIn. For tips about managing your diabetes and other chronic conditions and to chat and connect with us about your journey and perspectives. You can also visit our website Yumlish.com for more recipes advice and to get involved with all of the exciting opportunities Yumlish has to offer. If you like this week's show, make sure to subscribe so you can hear more from us every time we post. Thank you again, and we'll see you next time. Remember your health always comes first. Stay well.