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Congress Tells Schoolchildren "Screw Your Health"

Congress Tells Schoolchildren

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The new spending bill about to be signed by the president reverses school nutrition advances promulgated by the president's wife

The spending bill repeals required sodium reduction, on the grounds that there is no scientific research proving that "the reduction is beneficial for children."

The omnibus $1.1 trillion spending bill that has passed the House and Senate and is on its way to the White House for President Obama's signature is full of special-interest concessions, including plums for the insurance and casino industries.

But it also represents a victory for the laughably named School Nutrition Association, a group of school food-service providers that claims to be "committed to advancing the quality for school meal programs through education and advocacy.”

What the SNA advocates, among other things, is opposition to provisions of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, especially those related to reduced sodium in school meals and the integration of more whole grains into school menu standards like pasta and tortillas.

The spending bill repeals required sodium reduction, on the grounds that there is no scientific research proving that "the reduction is beneficial for children." The bill also permits states to issue waivers to school districts that claim it would be a "hardship" to substitute whole grains for refined flour in their recipes. The obvious beneficiaries of these provisions, other than school food-service companies, which may now continue business as usual, are the fast-food and wholesale food purveyors, much of whose food would be inedible without high levels of salt, and whose bottom lines would likely be affected by the necessity to switch to whole-grain products.

Another food-related provision in the bill bans the government from monitoring greenhouse gas emissions from manure or bovine flatulence, and forbids the Army Corps of Engineers to apply the Clean Water Act to farm ponds and irrigation canals.

Feeding Young Minds: The Importance of School Lunches

Harding Senior High, a public school in St. Paul, Minn., has long been known as a 90-90-90 school: 90 percent of students are minorities, nearly 90 percent come from poor or struggling families and, until recently, 90 percent graduate (now about 80 percent) to go on to college or a career.

Impressive statistics, to be sure. But perhaps most amazing about this school is that it recognizes and acts on the critical contribution that adequate food and good nutrition make to academic success. Accordingly, it provides three balanced meals a day to all its students, some of whom might otherwise have little else to eat on school days.

For those who can’t get to school in time for early breakfast, a substitute meal is offered after first period, to be eaten during the second period. Every student can pick up dinner at the end of the school day, and those who play sports after school can take the dinner with them to practices and games.

To Jennifer Funkhauser, a French teacher at Harding and a hands-on participant in the meal program, making sure the students are well fed is paramount to their ability to succeed academically. Ms. Funkhauser and the staff at Harding are well aware of the many studies showing that children who are hungry or malnourished have a hard time learning.

After she noticed that some youngsters were uncomfortable eating with hundreds of others in a large, noisy lunchroom, Ms. Funkhauser created a more private, quieter “lunch bunch” option for them.

The attitude and atmosphere at Harding are in stark contrast to the humiliating lunchroom experiences suffered by students at some schools, where youngsters are sometimes shamed in front of their classmates and their meals confiscated and dumped in the garbage when parents have an unpaid lunch bill.

A recent article in The New York Times pointed out this appalling practice. My Jewish friends and I called it “a shanda,” which is Yiddish for a scandal, a disgrace, an embarrassment.

But current problems with school lunch go far beyond shaming innocent children. After major improvements championed by the Obama administration in the nutritional value of school meals were already underway, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives and now the Trump administration have begun to undermine them.

In 2010, spurred by the advocacy of Michelle Obama, Congress enacted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, revamping the nation’s school lunch program to increase servings of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, provide age-appropriate calories, remove dangerous trans fats and limit levels of sodium. Schools were given incentives in the form of meal reimbursement funds to prompt them to participate.

Alas, in the fiscal-year 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill, the House included waivers allowing schools that had a six-month net loss of revenue for any reason to opt out of providing the healthier meals outlined in the 2010 act, Dr. Jennifer Woo Baidal, a pediatrician affiliated with Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Now, just days into his tenure as Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, rolled back the timetable by at least three years for reducing the high levels of salt in school lunches. The rollback will also allow schools to serve refined grains and 1-percent-fat flavored milk, instead of nonfat. Will progress on vegetables and fruits, calories and other fats be next on the chopping block?

Providing adequate amounts of nutritious food in schools is more important than many realize. “Students who eat regular, healthy meals are less likely to be tired, are more attentive in class, and retain more information,” Sean Patrick Corcoran, associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, told The Atlantic.

In fact, well-designed studies have demonstrated that “students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher” on statewide achievement tests, Michael L. Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues reported in April. They showed a 4-percentile improvement in test scores above those achieved in schools with less healthy meals.

“While this effect is modest in magnitude, the relatively low cost of healthy vendors when compared to in-house meal preparation makes this a very cost-effective way to raise test scores,” the researchers concluded.

In Minnesota, where 10 percent of households are considered “food insecure” and one child in six risks hunger, Wilder Research reported in 2014 that improved school nutrition is a “major component of Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Program.” The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, in St. Paul, described studies showing that simply providing free breakfast can result in better school attendance, improved behavior and concentration and better academic performance.

Clearly, an expansive food program at schools like Harding Senior High bears replication nationwide, not cutbacks.

“Nutrition can affect learning through three channels: physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity),” the Berkeley team wrote. For example, they explained, diets high in trans and saturated fats have a negative impact on learning and memory, reducing substances in the body that support cognitive processing and increasing the risk of neurological dysfunction.

Schools have complained that children don’t like the healthier meals and are more likely to throw the food away. However, an analysis of three large studies by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that under the improved nutrition rules, food waste actually declined in 12 Connecticut schools children consumed more fruits and vegetables in eight elementary schools in southeast Texas and in four elementary schools studied by the Harvard School of Public Health, children ate more of their entree and vegetable servings and more children took a serving of fruit.

A study conducted by Cornell University researchers at a New York high school in 2012 found that making healthier foods more convenient for students increased their sale by 18 percent and decreased the grams of unhealthy foods consumed by nearly 28 percent.

An earlier Cornell study found that simply moving the salad bar from a corner of the lunchroom to the center increased the sales and consumption of this healthier fare. Offering students a choice between two vegetable options and having them pay cash for unhealthy items like desserts and soft drinks, the findings suggested, may enhance consumption of healthier foods without reducing revenue or participation in school lunch programs. While the studies are not conclusive, they suggest that with a few simple steps, schools may have an impact on the foods students eat.

Why Big Food Belongs in the School Lunchroom

This article is by Hank Cardello, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a consultant on socially responsible products and practices, and the author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat.

America’s 50 million public school students are now back in the classroom, but a food fight raged all summer over the practicality of new standards for healthier fare in the cafeteria. Specifically, how do schools persuade the 37 million students who receive meals through the National School Lunch Program to consume more nutritious, lower-calorie foods and beverages, without turning them off altogether?

The skirmish is over the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which revamped nutrition standards in school cafeterias to counter stubbornly high obesity rates among children and adolescents. Critics say the act’s requirements for more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have repelled more than a million kids and left an estimated $3.8 million of produce to be wasted each day. The School Nutrition Association, an organization representing 55,000 school cafeterias, chimes in that these new requirements are too expensive and cause 3% of the students participating in the program to stop eating lunch at school. Some in Congress have asked the National School Lunch Program to give cash-strapped school districts another year to implement the higher standards. Even the White House has weighed in, with First Lady Michelle Obama fighting these proposals.

These factions all think they know what’s best, but ultimately their bickering may be pointless. Here is why: Despite all the barbs and accusations, school menus are actually being revamped for the better, quietly and without pointing it out to the finicky target audience. Consider the example of Sodexo Inc., the $8 billion U.S. unit of the French company that supplies U.S. school cafeterias serving 2 million lunches daily.

Instead of resisting the movement to feed our children more nutritious foods, Sodexo ’s efforts tell a different and more encouraging story. In 2009 the company signed on with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation that seeks to significantly reduce U.S. childhood obesity by 2015. The company also pledged at the First Lady’s Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in March 2014 to add more nutritious options to its vending and K-12 lunchroom programs, and to redesign or rearrange lunchrooms in its K-12 accounts by 2016 to encourage kids to choose healthier foods.

Since 2009 the cafeteria supplier has been tweaking recipes and marketing its healthier lunchroom offerings with a sizzle worthy of mall food courts. This initiative embraces principles from Cornell University’s well-regarded Smarter Lunchrooms movement, which shows schools how to improve students’ cafeteria choices through low- or no-cost strategies. These include making lower-fat white milk easier to reach than chocolate milk, giving healthier products more tempting names like “Bionic Carrots,” and offering new product samples to get children to accept healthier versions.

Sodexo has also worked with many of its supply-chain partners—supplying both ingredients and ready-to-eat items—to overhaul recipes and introduce healthier versions of favorite foods. These new menu items are kid-tested and refined before they are rolled out to schools. For example, Sodexo and Rich Products Corp. developed a whole-wheat pizza crust that was a hit with child testing panels and in the lunchroom. It collaborated with ConAgra to solve the whole wheat pasta disintegration problem. Using ConAgra’s Ultragrain, a whole wheat flour that mimics the taste and texture of real white flour, the reformulated pasta required a different cooking method. Sodexo showed lunchroom workers how to prepare it.

Lunchrooms that Sodexo supplies also offer a whole-grain version of the popular Scoops corn chips made by Frito-Lay , a division of PepsiCo. These not only deliver more whole grains, but also serve as a stiffer spoon. That reduces breakage. Sodexo has also distributed the whole grain version of the popular Goldfish crackers from Pepperidge Farm. Cafeterias are using the popular snack to increase sales of healthy soup children can’t buy the Goldfish crackers separately, but only with soup.

All this activity follows a major initiative led by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to replace sugary beverages in school vending machines. To date, more than 90% of all schools have replaced such products and now offer better-for-you versions such as bottled water and diet beverages.

The impact on child nutrition looks promising. In one Smarter Lunchroom pilot program, 21% more vegetables were eaten and fruit consumption rose by 14%, following an initial decline in the number of meals served. In contrast to School Nutrition Association statistics, lunchroom waste did not go up one bit after the healthier food tactics were launched. Moreover, the new foods have been good for business. Following an initial decline in the number of meals served due to the implementation of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, Sodexo’s sales to schools this year are as strong as previously recorded.

Purists may scoff at letting the Big Food bad boys into the lunchroom. But who better to change kids’ mindsets than large food and restaurant companies, with their much-maligned covens of food scientists searching for “bliss points,” their testing panels, and their clever marketing programs? It is clear that improving the nutritional quality of foods for kids is not only the right thing to do but also a growth opportunity for food companies. And it helps them generate a loyal following for their healthier products. More food companies need to be involved, and child nutrition activists need to engage them to address the obesity crisis.

So let’s continue to follow the example of Sodexo and other companies that have committed to better nutrition for schoolchildren. With a little tweaking and a new image, the lunch tray outcasts can become hip and attractive, and gain more fans in the school cafeteria and beyond.

Is your child sitting uncomfortably? Then we’ll begin

I t’s a childhood memory trigger up there with the smell of crayons and the sound of a Slinky travelling down the stairs. The feel of a school chair: bum-numbingly hard, built for stacking not sitting, mass-production not comfort, and bucket-shaped to a rigorous ergonomic standard that ensures it won’t fit a single child’s bottom in the land. Now one woman has decided to do for school chairs what Jamie Oliver did for school dinners. As in improve them, not start a boot camp in which designers are forced to stop manufacturing the Turkey Twizzlers of school furniture and make entertaining telly in the process.

Judith Kleinman, a professional double bass player and Alexander technique practitioner who teaches at the Junior Royal Academy of Music, tells me she started the Chairs for Children campaign after coming across an increasing number of children with back pain. “Some of my students find it very difficult to sit or stand for more than a few minutes,” she says. “They’re restless and exhausted. We’re really letting young people down by not recognising the long-term harm caused by a backward-sloping chair.”

It might seem a micro issue during an election campaign in which no one seems to be mentioning schools let alone how we furnish them, and it may not be glam enough to win Kleinman an audience with the future PM as Oliver did with Tony Blair in 2005. But the average child spends 15,000 hours sitting on chairs during their school life and when you factor in the slowed-down life of a child, in which double maths can feel as though it outlasts all five seasons of Game of Thrones, that’s a really, really long time.

So what exactly is the problem with your average school chair? The current European Standard, adopted by 33 countries, proposes that these chairs can slope backwards by five degrees. Kleinman’s Stat (Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique) campaign says this backward sloping leads to hunching, slumping and poor posture, increasing the risk of back pain that can continue into adulthood. Stat is calling for sloping seats to be stacked away for good and replaced with flat or forward-sloping chairs that will encourage children, once and for all, to sit up straight.

Chairs seem as good a place as any to start. Around a fifth of children suffer back pain and three in every classroom will see a doctor before their 16th birthday complaining of the condition. It only gets worse with age almost half the population will suffer from back and neck pain at some point in their life. “An employer would not be allowed to let an employee sit in chairs like this,” Kleinman says. “It’s ridiculous that children don’t have the same rights as adults.”

Malfaro: Tell the Legislature our kids are worth it

The Texas Legislature has the wallet to jump-start real solutions to the pressing challenges facing our public schools. The only question that remains is do they have the will? (Associated Press photo) LM Otero/STF

It's easy to get lost in the hubbub of the recently convened special session of the Texas Legislature. There's the political theater unfolding as backdrop for Gov. Greg Abbott's re-election bid and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's crusade to privatize education, mandate bathroom choices, restrict local government and harass immigrants. What shouldn't be forgotten are the 5.3 million schoolchildren of Texas. Roll that number around in your mind for a moment: 5.3 million. That's more people than inhabit any of the smallest 28 states in the Union. That's 10 percent of all the schoolchildren in the United States.

When Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback went to war against public (and higher) education a few years ago, slashing funding, and promoting privatization, the 300,000 public school children of that state suffered. In Texas, we are adding 300,000 new students to our state's public schools every four years! What happens to Texas public schools and to our 5.3 million schoolchildren must be a matter of utmost importance to all Texans and most especially to the men and women we elect to our state Legislature and statewide offices. Too much is on the line for our state to dither when so much is at stake.

There is no getting around the numbers that point to the profound challenge faced today by our state, where fully half of all the enrollment growth in public schools' students in the nation occurred in the last decade. Rice University professor Steve Murdock, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and former state demographer of Texas, warns of deep economic trouble ahead if current educational trend lines for the state's fastest-growing subgroups remain unaltered. Texas will become less economically competitive and our population poorer, he forecasts. In plain terms, our state's current K-12 students - 60 of them economically disadvantaged, one-sixth English-language learners, a third with at least one immigrant parent, and more than 70 percent "non-white" - will need to achieve at much higher levels than socioeconomically similar students in the past if we as a state are to maintain our economic and civic strength.

Murdock's original analysis dates back to the early 2000s, and a decade and a half later, our circumstances remain dubious. Since the early 2000s, funding for public education in Texas, adjusted for inflation, has been flat. Texas remains near the bottom of state rankings (36th nationwide) in classroom spending, more than $2,300 less per pupil than the national average.

The Texas Legislature has no time to waste on bathroom-use edicts, voucher schemes that divert scarce taxpayer dollars to subsidize unaccountable private schools, or state interference with local revenue and policy decisions best left to local voters and the people they elect to local office. State lawmakers should focus instead like a laser on state responsibilities that have been too long neglected: increasing state funding for public schools and relieving pressure on local property taxpayers by increasing the state share of school funding. "Reprioritizing" existing school dollars already stretched thin, as both the governor and lieutenant governor have proposed, will not get the job done.

Abbott's call for yet another study of school finance just puts off until tomorrow what needs to be done urgently today. The Legislature should stop the ongoing shift of school operating costs onto local taxpayers, which has dropped the state's share of per-pupil funding to just 37 percent, and instead add funding for students with special needs, English language learners and the economically disadvantaged. Lawmakers could start by passing a bill like HB 21, the per-pupil funding increase that already passed by a huge margin in the Texas House this spring. Increasing state aid to school districts along these lines would ease the strain on local property-tax payers and help stave off harsh benefit cuts looming for school retirees.

Texas is a wealthy state with a massive reserve fund, the Economic Stabilization or Rainy Day Fund, which is flush with more than $10 billion. Texans want action now, not more rhetoric and political gamesmanship.

Congress, here's what citizens are trying to tell you while you aren't listening

5:27 PM on May 15, 2017 CDT

We and other media outlets across the state have been fielding an increasing number of phone calls and emails from Texans complaining about the difficulty in reaching their elected representatives. We reprint here the text of one of the calls that came in over the weekend.

"Hi. I am calling because I am just horrified that for months now, when I call my senators' office. when I call [Sen. John] Cornyn's office or [Sen. Ted] Cruz's office, both lines, the mailboxes are full.

"I used to think, this is pointless, we shouldn't even be calling them because I am sure nobody even processes this information -- but the audacity and the disrespect, to basically say, you know, 'Screw it, we don't really care what our constituents think, we are going to operate unilaterally and we don't want any input.'

"But we need help! We need someone to represent us in Washington because the representatives aren't representing us. The FBI thing is alarming. And when I call to complain to my senators, they don't care and their mailbox is full.

" I am wondering if the press can put some pressure on them to actually listen to anybody. You know, empty your mailbox for starters. Maybe that would be awesome."

We wrote about this phenomenon in February, when callers from across the ideological spectrum complained that too many of their efforts to be heard were short-circuited by busy lines, full mail boxes, overflowing email accounts and too few staff members to help.

Many lawmakers pledged to do better. We did some research at the time and offered some suggestions about how constituents can make their voice heard. Our ideas ranged from working the phones to showing up at town halls and making constructive use of social media.

But judging from the volume of complaints we're still getting from across the state, it's clear the problem persists. So here are two additional ideas, aimed this time at the elected officials themselves.

Congress should follow the example of organizations accustomed to receiving surges of calls — such as airlines and utilities. Many of them inform callers of wait times and offer customers the option of leaving a phone number with a promise that a representative will return the call as soon as possible — and they do.

If adding staff is a problem, there usually is no shortage of young people eager to work as an intern answering calls. They might get a real education about listening to America. Best of all our elected representatives would know what their constituents think.

If elected officials can't figure out how to keep the lines of communication open with their constituents, maybe they should look for another line of work. Unless there's demonstrable improvement soon, here's betting a growing number of voters would be more than happy to show them the door.

How to be heard

Got an opinion about this editorial? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.

Boy Scouts tells Congress that protecting youth is its top priority

By Michael B. Surbaugh|Contributor

5:49 PM on Dec 18, 2018 CST

Editor's note: The Dallas Morning News acquired the following letter sent by the Boy Scouts of America to the United States Congress.

Dear Honorable Members of Congress,

Thank you for your letter sent on Nov. 20, 2018, and for the opportunity to work together on the national epidemic of child abuse plaguing schools, churches, youth organizations and families. Please know that we share your same goals of keeping children safe and protected from all forms of abuse and harm. One incident of child abuse is one too many.

We care deeply about all victims of child sex abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed in our programs. We are outraged there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to harm children. We want you to know that at no time in our history have we ever knowingly allowed a sexual predator to work with youth. We seek to act swiftly when alerted to any potential issue, which is why we have designated our Scout leaders as mandatory reporters, going above and beyond current regulations. Nothing is more important than the safety and protection of children in our Scouting programs — it is our top priority.

Many years ago, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) adopted some of the strongest barriers to child abuse that can be found in any youth serving organization. In fact, the BSA has what many experts say are the most effective procedures to protect youth from sexual predators, including:

• Ongoing mandatory youth protection education for all volunteers, parents, and Scouts.

• A formal leader selection process that includes criminal background checks and other screening efforts.

• Policies and procedures to serve as barriers to abuse, such as mandating two-deep leadership and prohibiting one-on-one situations where adults would interact with children - either in-person, online, or via text.

• Prompt mandatory reporting to the authorities of any allegation or suspicion of abuse.

• Database system that is recommended by experts to prevent individuals from re-registering in Scouting who were removed because they do not meet the BSA's standards or because of known or suspected abuse or other misconduct, either inside or outside the organization.

The BSA is also committed to helping abuse victims heal. We have always taken care of victims — we believe them, we believe in fairly compensating them, and we have paid for unlimited counseling for abuse victims and their families by a provider of their choice, regardless of the amount of time that has passed since an instance of abuse. We require no proof a victim need only make a request. In fact, the state of Colorado has since adopted a counseling remedy for such situations, which we fully support and implemented nationwide throughout the BSA years ago.

As an organization whose top priority is protecting our youth members, we ardently support legislative measures that would reform statutes of limitation and would emphatically support reform of civil statutes of limitation for individual abusers and against organizations that intentionally concealed wrongdoing. We strongly stand behind holding the individual accountable, making sure that penalties are applied, and that sentences are served to completion.

Given your roles as leaders of our nation, we know that protection of children is a shared priority for us all. As you look for ways to act on your expressed concerns, we wanted to take this opportunity to support your efforts by presenting our recommendations for areas and programs needing federal support. The following is a list of recommended programs and ideas that independent experts agree will keep children safe now and in the future, including:

• Funding the CDC study to update the guidelines that all organizations should consider in determining how to keep children in their programs safe.

• Establishing and funding a system where volunteers can register and be cleared through a common screening process applicable to all states and organizations with an affordable process for conducting background checks and periodically renewing the clearance to reduce the risk that potential abusers can gain access to children by moving across state lines or to other youth serving organizations.

• Enabling youth-serving organizations to share information about individuals who have been removed from their programs for alleged inappropriate conduct - even if the individuals have not been arrested or convicted - to keep potential abusers out of these organizations.

• Strengthening mandatory reporting laws.

• Requiring that sex abuse offenders serve full sentences.

We are heartened to see you are as committed to youth protection as we are. We look forward to continuing this dialogue and working together on these shared priorities.

Michael B. Surbaugh is chief scout executive with the Boy Scouts of America.

What's your view?

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Emojis Could Help Kids Make Healthier Food Choices

Childhood obesity is a national epidemic that is being fought on my fronts: First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let&aposs Move campaign to encourage kids (and their parents) to eat better and move more. Congress passed legislation that aims to provide school children with healthierਊnd more nutritious breakfasts and lunches. Even we at Cooking Light have launched our Let&aposs Cook series, which਎ncourages families of all stripes to skip the drive-thru and cook (and eat) together for their health and financial wellbeing.

The onus of change has been largely on the adults. They&aposre the ones who control the purse strings and, in most cases, the food that children eat.਋ut a new study published in Appetite shows there might be an easier and more effective way to help kids help themselves--and it&aposs something you probably see every day: emojis.

Emolabeling, or using emojis to illustrate a message, may help children pick healthier foods. In this study, children ages 5 to 11 were given brief instructions on how to use the emoji labels (smiling faces equal healthy, frowning faces equal unhealthy), and then they were guided into a contrived grocery store and asked to select four items. In each of two aisles, researchers placed the same 12 foods. One aisle had emojis with each food selection, and one aisle did not have the symbols.

When children had emojis to guide them, 83 percent switched at least one of their food items for a healthier choice. This number was largely consistent across all ages and grade levels.

Children, who may have a difficult time reading nutrition labels and an even harder time understanding what they mean (hey, we adults do, too), are excellent at understanding emotion, and that, says Greg Privitera, study leader and current research chair at the Center for Behavioral Health Research for the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, is exactly why emojis make so much sense.

"While children lack health literacy (e.g., a basic understanding of calories or ability to count calories), they have an astute understanding of emotion (i.e., high emotional literacy)," Privitera said. "Thus, emotion was used because it appealed most to the intelligence of children who are at pre- to early literacy ages. We have found this approach to be most effective in making health information meaningful to children."While only a minor change to food label and packaging, emojis might hold the key to help kids--and their parents--make healthier food decisions. Could something similar to an emolabeling system help adults make healthier food choices, too, we wondered?

"Emolabeling could be helpful for adults, although it would need to be tested further. At present there are efforts, such as Front-Of-Package labeling to address the need to simplify nutrition labels for adults. Emolabeling could certainly be used to further simplify the labels themselves. That can and will be tested - although at present the focus is on children," Privitera said.

"Ultimately, the goal is to empower children to be a part of the solution for childhood obesity, instead of being asked to sit on the sidelines so to speak. Given the role of SES [socioeconomic status] in obesity, with children in lower SES demographics being at greater risk of obesity - the next steps for our research include running a larger scale study across the SES spectrum to identify the effectiveness of emolabeling across SES demographics."Tell us: Would you like food packages to include emojis so children and parents can make healthier choices? Could an emolabeling system ever work for adults?

Testing your pressure canner for accuracy

Be prepared for canning season by making sure your pressure canner gauge is accurate to prevent foodborne illness.

Do you use a pressure canner to can food? Did you know that if you have a dial gauge on your canner that you should have it checked for accuracy? Michigan State University Extension offers pressure canner gauge testing so you can check to see if your pressure canner gauge is displaying an accurate pressure reading. Without an accurate pressure gauge, you can place those that eat your home canned food at risk for dangerous foodborne illnesses, such as botulism.

Many county Extension offices have a pressure canner gauge tester. Just bring in your gauge or the canner lid and it can be tested for accuracy. Some gauges can be removed easily, but others can feel like they are cemented to the lid. If you can&rsquot remove it, bring the whole lid in, and the testing can be done while the gauge is attached to the lid.

If your gauge is off by more than 2 pounds of pressure (psi), your gauge is not accurate and the food you are processing may not be cooked thoroughly or processed accurately. The next step would be to send the gauge in to the manufacturer who can replace it. Your local MSU Extension office can also inspect the lid for proper seals and vents. You may want to contact the local office before bringing it in to find out if there is a tester in your county and when an educator will be in your county to do the inspection.

Weighted gauges use a weight that causes the loud &ldquojiggle&rdquo sound that most people commonly associate with home canned foods. The weighted gauges do not need to be calibrated but should be evaluated for cracked gaskets and clogged steam vents.

It is best to do this test annually, at the beginning of the summer, before you need to use the canner. Don&rsquot wait until the last minute to bring it in, as you need to allow for time for sending in the gauge if necessary. MSU Extension has resources on food preservation, including pressure canning, and recommends following tested recipes and safe food handling when preserving food.

The scary truth about antibiotic overuse in kids

Your kid has another ear infection. What should you do? As scientists unlock the connection between antibiotic use in kids and the increased risk of asthma, depression, obesity and other chronic diseases, parents are faced with a tough decision.

Illustrations by Olivia Mew

Jennifer Chrysler is a self-proclaimed hippie mom with a pretty chill parenting style. She makes baby slings out of hemp, embraces all things organic and, her son, Mitchell, at two and a half, already knows the words to Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” The only time Chrysler gets stressed is when Mitchell gets sick, which seems to happen with alarming frequency since he started school. What worries her the most is when that illness is accompanied by a fever.

Chrysler recalls the first time Mitchell had a fever just over a year ago. He woke up with a temperature of 102F. Cold cloths on his feet and forehead coupled with doses of pain medication every four hours didn’t make any difference. By the next morning, Chrysler was in a panic. “He was such a wee little thing and he was so sick, he couldn’t even lift his head. It was terrifying,” she says, and they headed right away to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics for an ear infection. “I had to make a decision. I realized I had to get him on antibiotics because what I was doing wasn’t working.”

As medical marvels go, antibiotics top the list. Since the mid-1900s, they’ve prevented millions of deaths from pneumonia, tuberculosis and a host of other unpleasant infectious diseases. Before the advent of antibiotics, if children contracted bacterial meningitis there was a 90 percent chance they wouldn’t recover. Now, with a course of amoxicillin, toddlers like Mitchell recover almost instantly from bacterial infections and are back to their normal, busy selves in a day or two. However, scientists are realizing, this incredible success has come at a price.

The problem is that antibiotics are like indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction—yes, they wipe out the insurgent disease-causing bacteria that threaten our health, but they also obliterate the beneficial bacteria. Like bees in a hive, most of the tiny microbes that inhabit our bodies (as many as 1,500 species live in the gut alone) have important jobs to do, from digesting food and synthesizing vitamins to strengthening the immune system and fighting disease. And researchers are finding that when we mess with them, it can increase our risk for chronic illness.

All this creates a conundrum for parents like Chrysler: When your kid is sick and screaming with pain in the middle of the night, you want to fix it—fast. But is the answer always getting a prescription for antibiotics? Should you risk killing the good bacteria with the bad, which could increase their odds of developing asthma or allergies down the road, or hold out and hope things get better on their own? Of course, there are those nightmarish stories we hear about parents who chose not to administer antibiotics with terrible consequences. Last year, parents in Pennsylvania were criminally charged when their 18-month-old died from bacterial meningitis after they treated her with homeopathy and a couple in rural Alberta were sentenced after treating their son’s bacterial meningitis with herbal remedies and “failing to provide the necessities of life.” It can feel a little like a lose-lose situation, where parents and doctors have to weigh the risks of treating versus not treating.

Too much of a good thing?
You’d be hard pressed to find a medical expert who’d contest the significant role antibiotics play in keeping kids healthy, but there are those, like Alexandra Zhernakova at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who worry that we’ve become overzealous in our approach to treating common illnesses. Zhernakova, who studies intestinal bacteria and the effects they have on disease, says children are especially vulnerable.

“Using antibiotics in children has a broader effect on health compared to adults, including long-term consequences,” Zhernakova says. She published a study last year that revealed just some of the ways, from diet to medication, we’re altering our gut microbiota—the population of micro-organisms that call our intestines home. A big concern is the extent to which antibiotic use in childhood messes with the trillions of bugs that live in the gut, wiping out everything, including the ones that might reduce a child’s risk of developing asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and even obesity later in life. “High diversity, or the presence of many different
bacteria, is good for gut health, whereas low diversity is associated with diseases,” Zhernakova says.

Scientists really only started seriously investigating microbes in the last decade, so we still don’t know what role most of the bacteria in our bodies play. But links have been found between antibiotic use and an increased risk of everything from allergies to anxiety—last year, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel found treatment with just one course of antibiotics increases your risk of developing depression and anxiety, and that risk increases significantly with every prescription you fill. And the earlier you take antibiotics, the greater the implications. A study in JAMA Pediatrics in June found antibiotic use in breastfeeding babies could even reduce some of the long-term health benefits of nursing. And earlier this year, scientists at the University of Helsinki discovered that kids who receive antibiotics (especially macrolides like azithromycin, which are commonly used to treat upper respiratory tract infections) before age two are at an increased risk of asthma and obesity. That study also found that it can take children’s guts at least a year—sometimes two—to recover from one course of antibiotics.

Assessing the damage
This drastic change is what worries Brett Finlay, a professor of microbiology at the University of British Columbia. “What we’re seeing is that each time you take antibiotics, you screw up your gut microbiota,” he says. “You can get away with it once or twice, but if you do it repeatedly, you’ll shift your microbiota permanently—and not in a good direction.” This fall, Finlay co-wrote the thought-provoking book Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Our Children from an Oversanitized World, which explores why keeping children’s gut bugs healthy is essential to their developing immune systems.

The first three to five years are key, Finlay says, because that’s the time it takes for a child’s microbiota to become a fully formed community. We don’t yet know what all these bugs do, but we do know that one of their most important tasks is to help kick-start kids’ immune systems. Unfortunately, our squeaky-clean, bugs-be-gone way of life is putting kids at risk.

“We went on a major campaign to clean up the world with antibiotics and cleanliness and sanitizing everything,” Finlay says. It worked for infectious diseases, which plummeted in the last 50 years, but if you put them on the same curve as non-infectious diseases, Finlay says they go in the opposite direction. “When I was a kid, no one had asthma—there was one kid in the school. Now, up to 20 percent of kids have asthma. What has happened in that short time? It’s less than two generations, so we haven’t changed genetically, but something’s happened.”

Many scientists, including Emma Allen-Vercoe, an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Guelph, believe that “something” may be the internal climate change we’ve inflicted on the microscopic ecosystems in our guts. Allen-Vercoe believes the complex relationship we have with that ecosystem may even be at the root of the increased incidence of autism spectrum disorder in the last decade. (Today, one in 68 children is diagnosed with ASD, compared to one in 150 in 2000.) “There may be a genetic predisposition, but I think the adage ‘genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger’ is true in autism spectrum disorder,” she says.

Past studies have suggested a link between gut microbiota and the development of autism symptoms around age two, but what got Allen-Vercoe interested was anecdotal evidence from parents. “Many of these children seem to have gut issues—foul-smelling stool, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, discomfort—yet this aspect of their disease was largely ignored.” And many parents of autistic kids often say controlling their children’s diets plays a key role in managing their symptoms. “We’re trying to understand whether there is an abnormal metabolism in the guts of autistic kids, and whether interventions such as antibiotic use early in life, when a child’s microbiota is at its most vulnerable, may be the trigger to set the abnormal metabolism in place.”

As the idea of protecting good gut bacteria has spread, antibiotic use has become slightly more judicious. Between 2011 and 2013, the greatest reduction in antibiotic use in Canada was in children in the newborn to five-year age group, dropping from 1,003 to 872 prescriptions for every 1,000 children. Still, in 2013, antibiotics were recommended to a higher rate of children under age two than to adults aged 20 to 65—and Canada ranks 11th out of 29 countries based on total antimicrobial use overall. “Comparing the frequency of antibiotic use in different countries suggests that it can be reduced in a lot of cases,” says Zhernakova, pointing to how the Dutch use half as many antibiotics as Belgians.

A prescription for the problem
Do some doctors still over-prescribe antibiotics for non-serious infections? Do some parents still insist on leaving the nearest walk-in with a prescription, even if their child’s runny nose is caused by a virus and not bacteria? Yes, on both counts, says Joan Robinson, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee in Edmonton. Yet, she cautions that even though we know there has been a big change in our gut bacteria, a lot of the research is based on correlations, which means an exact cause-and-effect relationship still needs to be teased out. “Is the problem antibiotics, or is it something else?” Even so, she says paediatricians recognize over-prescribing antibiotics has a negative effect, from disrupting our microbiomes to creating antibiotic resistance. As a result, doctors are getting better at “more rational prescribing.”

Robinson says it’s also up to parents to ensure there’s a really good reason their child is getting a prescription. “When parents understand the risks, they can say to their doctors: ‘We don’t want antibiotics unless you think they’re completely necessary.’” Antibiotics need to be reserved for serious infections, she says, adding that for all the ear infections that get treated, only between 10 to 20 percent of patients need antibiotics. “We’re realizing that maybe it’s not reasonable to give 10 children antibiotics just to benefit one.” Most doctors now recommend parents wait 24 hours before filling a prescription, to see if the symptoms disappear on their own. It may feel like a long wait, but Robinson says it’s worth it. “If you give children Advil or Tylenol for the pain, odds are they’ll get better just as quickly as they would on an antibiotic.”

Even the doctors who study the havoc antibiotics can wreak on our internal bug populations aren’t saying “don’t do drugs” altogether. Antibiotics, if prescribed correctly, are necessary, says Allen-Vercoe. Her daughters, now 10 and 17, have both been on antibiotics—the eldest for strep throat when she was a toddler and the youngest for a urinary tract infection. “Get a second opinion if you’re concerned, but remember that antibiotics, when used judiciously, save lives.”

Chrysler’s son, Mitchell, has already been on antibiotics five times, usually for ear infections. “My paediatrician is amazing and she’s not a drug pusher,” Chrysler says. “When it’s just a cold or the infection isn’t severe, she tells me to just let it run its course.” But in those five cases when Mitchell didn’t seem to be getting better on his own, she feels the prescription was warranted.

In an attempt to counteract the effect of the antibiotics Mitchell had after being sick for several weeks last spring, she started giving him chewable probiotics every day—and ensures his diet is full of fruit and vegetables to strengthen his immune system naturally. She says she’s also trying to resist the urge to douse her son in antibacterial gel after every interaction with the outside world—although a recent mouth-on-a-shopping-cart-handle incident did freak her out. “I’m trying to be less of a germophobe, but that was really gross.”

And yet when Mitchell gets an ear infection that doesn’t improve after the “watch and wait” period, she puts her concerns about antibiotics aside. “I’ve gotten to the point where if rest doesn’t bring down his fever and I know the prescription is the only thing that will fix it, I don’t argue, I just fill the script.”

Can we make better antibiotics?

There’s a promising discovery that bacteria in the human body may be effective when it comes to fighting specific infections. Antibiotics are typically derived from bacteria found in soil, but a recent study published in Nature found microbes that live in people’s noses can create an antibiotic that not only kills the bacteria that cause meningitis and bronchitis, but also defeats the hospital superbug MRSA.

Another potential treatment on the horizon: targeted probiotics. Currently, probiotics consist of a few select microbes that aren’t chosen for what they do, but because they can be grown easily out of things like milk (Lactobacillus, for example). They typically contain only a single strain, so their impact is minimal. They’re also not designed to stick around in your gut (which is why you have to take billions every day to get any real benefit). But microbiologist Brett Finlay says work is underway to create better probiotics—ones that contain more strains of microbes that the body produces naturally, thus offering bigger health benefits and increasing the chance the microbes will colonize in the gut. They’ll also be streamlined to target different health issues. “With probiotics 2.0, we’ll be able to say, ‘We know these specific microbes are needed to prevent asthma, so let’s actually get these into kids,’ which will be a big regulatory task, but it will come.”

Watch the video: Παναγιώτης Καράμπεας, πρόεδρος Συνδικάτου Οικοδόμων και Συναφών Επαγγελμάτων Μεσσηνίας


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