Jessica Donze Black still remembers the moment in the mid-1990s when a young child suffering from type 2 diabetes walked into the weight management clinic where she worked.
Donze Black was floored. Children weren’t supposed to get type 2 diabetes; it was so rare that most people referred to it as adult onset diabetes.
But as time went on, Donze Black saw more kids coming into the clinic with the condition, along with a host of other problems related to childhood obesity.
That’s when the registered dietitian began to focus her energy on creating healthy environments for all children.
Donze Black is now the project director for the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project
, a joint initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The project provides nonpartisan policy analysis and recommendations tied to the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Donze Black previously worked as national director of the Healthy Schools Program for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and was the first executive director of the Campaign to End Obesity.
It’s an impressive resume, but Donze Black says it all comes back to creating healthy environments for children. She recalls her work at the weight management clinic, where she advised kids and their families about the best ways to shed pounds. Donze Black basically had to ask kids to “fight the system in second grade,” she says.
Creating safe school environments is the main goal of the project. Donze Black and her team are working to ensure that the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopts nutrition standards for all food and beverages served and sold in schools, along with helping schools get the resources needed to train cafeteria employees and replace outdated or broken kitchen equipment. They’re also working with the USDA develop and implement school food safety policies.
There’s no doubt that passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was a huge step forward in improving school meals, Donze Black says. But she compared the recent progress to a football game, noting that “getting all the way to the 20 yard line isn’t a touchdown.”
Donze Black’s time with the Alliance will help with her current efforts, she says. In her previous role, Donze Black worked with local schools and districts to directly empower schools to make positive changes.
Hundreds of schools took action and made healthier environments for their students, often with limited funds and resources. Now that Donze Black is working to create change at the federal level, she can point to that experience to show how federal policy change will effect schools — and prove to any doubters that progress can be made.
“There are innovative ways to do it, and schools can operate even better when they’re healthy,” she says. “There are some living examples out there… the good news is, it’s not exceptional.”
Along with promoting the great work happening in schools across the country, the project also will likely do work in the coming months related to the release of standards for competitive foods in schools, which the USDA is expected to unveil later this year.
Donze Black says she and her team want to make sure the standards “are scientifically based and nutritionally sound,” and will focus on educating the public and policymakers about their importance.
“I feel really optimistic, I really do,” Donze Black says. “I think we’ve made tremendous progress. I think the tide has turned.”
Full disclosure: PreventObesity.net is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.