Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Overweight Epidemic Requires Community Solutions

By Laurie Iscaro

Our hurried lifestyles lead us toward sedentary recreation. Our children “play” with the computer, I-Pods and Gameboys, and our teens spend many idle hours on MySpace and Facebook. Our schools rarely provide recess or physical education any more, and our kids are rushed through 20-minute lunches in a cafeteria where chicken fingers, pizza and ice cream are more common than a salad bar. Once home, kids who are alone without supervision often opt for sugary or salty treats and TV instead of outdoor play and a nutritious snack.

It’s little wonder we’re having issues with being overweight and obese. Yet schools alone cannot meet the needs of the healthy child for physical, artistic, social and emotional expression.

Obesity presents a staggering health issue today. The level of this epidemic has been unseen in the past and has grown dramatically worse in recent years. Today, one in three Georgia children is obese. According to the CDC, nearly one in four kids does not engage in any type of physical activity during their free time. Middle school students watch three or more hours of television per day on school days and 80 percent of our high school students do not eat the recommended five per day servings of fruits and vegetables.

Georgia has taken an important first step in addressing this crisis with a proposal calling for physical fitness assessments for students. This confidential assessment of data would be reported to the state as an aggregate for each school to shine some light on how our students are faring as a group. A yearly review will allow us to track whether we are making progress in addressing student fitness. The proposal also creates incentives for complying with Georgia’s modest physical education requirements for schools and promotes increased physical activity as a way to increase fitness.

Yet, success will require much more. We must improve the nutrition standards for school breakfast and lunch programs and step-up nutrition education. We need to also fully address vending machine practices and policies in schools and other public places where children are offered food and drink choices that are inconsistent with healthy eating habits.

Also, nonschool hours represent the single largest block of time in the lives of children. It is during this time where we must provide increased opportunities for children to participate in community-based after-school and summer programs that support a range of healthy physical activities. Afterschool programs provide the ideal environment for engaging children in sports and active play. They model and teach healthy behaviors and provide a direct connection to parents. Unfortunately, a recent survey by the Afterschool Alliance found that a large percentage of school age children do not have access to these programs.

It is important that a strategy to challenge obesity reflects the factors that have created the crisis. Today, in most families, both parents work outside the home and for longer hours. When parents get home from a long day at work, they are met with kids needing homework help, a long list of household chores to perform with little time to do them, and the need to prepare, serve and clean-up supper so their growing children can consume healthy, fresh, balanced, non-processed meals. All this for families often isolated from traditional community and family supports.

The 21st Century has presented a unique set of challenges for children, schools and families. The solution cannot rest on the shoulders of parents, or even parents and schools alone. This crisis requires a strategic and comprehensive community effort.

It’s time to recognize the challenges that our families live with today, and provide the needed services to children in school and through quality programs after school. Doing so ensures that harried, hard working families can raise healthy children that thrive.
Iscaro is the executive director for the Georgia School Age Care Association.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Georgia Forum. 3/08

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Women Make History Today on the New York Times Op-Ed Pages

As part of National Women's Editorial Forum's project to monitor Op-Ed pages of newspapers across the country, I have been reading the opinion section the New York Times for several months and have been very discouraged by the lack of women authors. The names of women rarely appear as bylines, and when they do, there is usually only one, most often one of the Times’ two female staff columnists. So, imagine how ecstatic I was to see that all of the four op-eds posted in today’s New York Times featured women authors. Then I discovered the topic to which the entire page was devoted: the Elliot Spitzer sex scandal.

One author is a woman who sympathizes with Spitzer’s wife, Silda, having gone through a similar predicament herself. The second author wrote with a male author to explore the myth of the victimless crime, discussing the consequences of the sex-for-hire industry and publicity faced by the prostitutes themselves. The third author is a former sex worker, and the fourth author is a syndicated columnist uses Elliot Spitzer’s poor choices as evidence as to why America should elect a woman president, as if that would eliminate infidelity among male politicians.

Not to discredit the voices of these women, but I find it interesting that the only time I’ve ever seen women dominate the commentary section in the nation’s paper of record is when the topic is sex, prostitution, and dishonorable conduct by a married male politician.

This is why it is so critical to monitor women in the media. Tracking the behaviors of local, state, and national publications allows us make valid plausible arguments in defense of the absence of women in the commentary continuum. You can help us by letting us know what’s on the op-ed page of your local newspaper. It’s easy to do through our Web-based form.

Sign up for Women’s Monitor today!

--Sui Lang Panoke

Friday, March 07, 2008

Join The Women’s Monitor Project

Following on the heels of the discussion of The Washington Post’s editorial judgment in selecting guest columns, this is a good time to reintroduce the National Women’s Editorial Forum’s “Women’s Monitor” project. We are currently looking at Opinion pages across the country to see how many feature women’s voices and how often.

We need your help to know who’s there and who’s not -- so we can begin to make change, one paper at a time. We’re looking for volunteers who don’t mind reading their own daily newspaper (or any one accessible on the web) and providing a report of the day of how many of the opinion columns (not unsigned editorials) are written by women.

For example, a sample report from the Los Angeles Times on March 7, 2008 shows the paper printed five columns, all by men. We’re looking for readers across the country to track their paper (or papers) and submit similar daily reports. (Looking at papers online is fine). The more reports, and the more consistent the data, the more we can take the numbers to the papers and demand they provide a forum for women’s voices. Women shouldn’t be regulated to the token voices, representing only one-fourth or less of the paper’s columnists….or less. As Katha Pollitt recently pointed out at the Washington Post the “current roster of op-ed columnists: 16 men, two women.”

That’s unacceptable and it’s time to get the data to show the editors they are excluding women’s voices from the debate.

Click here to apply for a password to the Monitor and afterwards you’ll be able to submit a report of your paper’s Opinion page breakdown.

If anyone has questions feel free to email us at nwef (at) mediaforum dot org.

We’re looking forward to hearing about how well papers across the country represent (or don’t) women’s voices.

---Rachel Joy Larris

Farm Bill Reforms Must Be Permanently Funded

By Kathryn Sherlock

It's stunning that in a country with such abundant resources, know-how and advanced technology, we can’t seem to figure out how to end hunger.

Second Harvest reported in 2006 that 35.5 million people, 12.6 million of whom were children, experienced food insecurity (the government’s more palatable term for people who are hungry). Households with children reported food insecurity at almost double the rate of households without children. New Mexico ranked second in the nation behind Mississippi in food insecurity between 2004 and 2006.

Congress has an opportunity to do something significant toward ending hunger as they make their final decisions on the Farm Bill. What gets included (or not) will set U.S. agricultural policy for the next five years or more. This impacts everyone in New Mexico.

The Nutrition Title of the Farm Bill includes the Food Stamp Program and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which helps supply food banks around the country. In the U.S., 26 million people use food stamps each month to help prevent food insecurity -- half of these people are children. Yet, Congress has failed to update this successful program to meet society’s changing needs. Food stamps currently provide recipients only $1 per meal. Eighty percent of these benefits get used up by the middle of the month. The program’s requirements for financial eligibility and benefits are badly out of date (limits on savings were set in 1985). Food Stamp benefits do not adjust for inflation, so as food prices rise, benefits buy less food.

In 2007, both the House and Senate passed versions of the Farm Bill, including about $4 billion in improvements to Food Stamps and TEFAP. The changes, although modest, are essential updates to these programs. They include increasing the income and childcare deductions for food stamp applicants (income determines benefit levels) and raising the minimum monthly benefit from $10 to $18 -- the first increase in 30 years. TEFAP funding is increased from $140 to $250 million per year. Of great concern is that if these changes are not permanently funded, 300,000 people would lose benefits and millions more will see benefits cut when the changes expire in 2013. Improvements need to be permanently paid for, preferably with savings generated by reforming the outdated and unjust commodity payment system.

The key to really helping hungry families is to see that the best possible provisions for Food Stamps and TEFAP are adopted in the final Farm Bill and that they are permanently funded. That means adopting Food Stamp provisions on the standard deduction, childcare expenses, and minimum monthly benefit; and adopting provisions on asset limits and unemployed adults.

Unfortunately, even these modest changes are now facing cuts in the final negotiations even though Congress has refused to reform the antiquated commodity payment system that pays out billions of dollars each year, to already-rich farms. Money spent should work for the benefit of those who need help, not those who have wealth. Reform of commodity payments would not only change this out-of-date and unfair system, it would also free up much-needed revenue to help pay for improvements in nutrition and rural development programs. Hungry people and rural communities should not have to sacrifice vital assistance to further subsidize the rich.

As food prices rise and the economy is in a downturn, failure to strengthen the Farm Bill will make it even harder for people living in hunger in New Mexico to get the food they need to live productive, healthy lives.
Sherlock is the co-group leader for RESULTS-Santa Fe.
Copyright © 2008 by the New Mexico Editorial Forum

Where Are the Women?

After the fracas over the characterization of women in the Sunday opinion section of an important newspaper, a prominent feminist calls for a drastic increase in women editors and columnists.

On Sunday, the Washington Post offered, on the front page of its opinion section, two featured essays under a shared headline, “Women vs. Women.” One of those essays was penned by Charlotte Allen, a well-known opponent of feminism, who proclaimed that women were essentially inferior to men in nearly all categories she deemed meaningful, which include driving skills, spatial relations and math (and did not include verbal skills or multitasking).

The torrent of anger that answered the Post’s publication of Allen’s piece was predictable, and perhaps even welcomed by a Web site looking to up its page views. Into this fray stepped Katha Pollitt, the resident feminist columnist at The Nation, who, in her rebuttal today on the Post’s Web site, asked the question we have been begging for some time: If women were more equitably represented on the opinion page editorial staffs of major papers, and as columnists within those pages, would a piece like the Allen essay ever had seen the light of day. From Pollitt’s rebuttal:
Here's a thought. Maybe there's another thing women can do besides fluff up their husbands' pillows: Fill more important jobs at The Washington Post. We should be half the assigning editors, half the writers, and half the regular columnists too (current roster of op-ed columnists: 16 men, two women). We've got those superior verbal skills, remember? Drastically increasing the presence of women isn't a foolproof recipe for gender fairness -- Allen is far from alone in her dislike of her sex -- but I have to believe a gender-balanced paper would reflect a broader view of women than The Post does at present.
In addition, Laura Rozen offers this savvy take on her blog, War and Piece, and Ann Friedman puts forth an excellent send-up at Feministing.

UPDATE: Incidents like this one reminds me is why our Women's Monitor project is so important. We're looking for volunteers interested in tracking their paper's op-ed columns.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

From Prison to Work and Not Back Again

By Rep. Helen Miller and Roger L. Baysden

There are over 2 million people behind bars in America and the numbers continue to grow. That’s more than the entire populations of Vermont, North Dakota and Alaska combined.

While major strides have been made in our country to better understand the needs of offenders, the United States still remains the single largest warehouser of inmates in the world. Far too little discussion is occurring on how to best address the needs of the 1.8 million offenders that will be released from our penal system and return to the communities from which they have come.

The education field argues that offenders need to earn their GED; the treatment corner of corrections argues that treatment is the most important element to a successful re-entry. From the religious community, we hear that focusing on the kinder and gentler side of people will help in their transformation. Others say it is family intervention that is sorely needed.

However, there is one common thread that runs through all of the disciplines that will assure a successful re-entry into the community and serve as the spring board of the escape from the past. What is that? A paycheck.

It is the only thing that will ultimately set the offender free. It is the nucleus for all other things; it is the freedom that allows for the good things to emerge from the offender. Without money in his or her own pocket, offenders are destined to return to a life of crime, just to satisfy the basic needs of life -- food and shelter. To an offender or any one, a paycheck offers hope, and work serves as an esteem builder. The combination of a paycheck and a job is the very bedrock of our society. There is no greater help or training that we can offer an offender than the freedom to be successful, thus enabling them to declare their independence of crime.

Work and skill development embraced by offenders will contribute more to the ultimate success of a released offender than any other single solution that an individual incurs in or out of prison. This includes life skills support while incarcerated and after their release. Moreover, we know that offenders can be and are highly productive people in work programs, thus reducing idleness in the prison and preparing offenders for jobs in the community upon release.

Supporting this contention, that work is the prime component for a successful re-entry into society, we need to look no further than a three-year study on what reduces recidivism.

The University of Baltimore via a federal grant, studied offenders who were discharged from Iowa prisons between 2000 and 2003. The prime measure of success in the community was their contributions to social security, or payroll deductions. This allowed the research group to determine any interruptions of pay for work, the frequency of the interruption, and the duration. Additionally, offenders were broken into two categories, those who work in prison industries or private sector programs verses those who did not have exposure to hands on training by either of these work programs. Inmates who mowed grass, worked in the kitchens, laundries or other housekeeping areas were categorized as non-industry work.

Not surprising, prison industry (private sector) trained offenders, had the lowest recidivism rate in each of the five states that were studied. In Iowa, offenders who worked in industries after three years had a 4.9 percent recidivism rate verses a 35 percent recidivism rate for those who worked for Iowa Department of Corrections. Another startling statistic is that since 1992, Iowa inmates have paid over $23 million in family support, taxes, restitution, victim’s compensation and room and board. Nationally, the figure is over $434, million since the inception of these programs.

The challenge of the courts, corrections, and society at large is how do we balance the safety of the public with punishment that fits the crime? If we ask the public what they want to happen to those who are in our prisons, they will quickly tell us either to fix them or keep them.

The U.S. population is growing older and there is a dire need for workers across the United States. Now is the time to focus on work as the primary means of self reliance and fulfillment upon release and to begin the journey of work-focused training as a top priority for our offenders.
Miller is a State Representative (D-District 49). Baysden is the director of industries for the Iowa Department of Corrections.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Moving Women From Benchwarmers to Captains

By Linda Tarr-Whelan

Sometimes progress is measured by half-court movements. When I was in school, girls played basketball by different rules than the boys. We played on a half-court and could only dribble three times before passing the ball. Girls were regarded as too fragile to run the distance. Now, tell that to the women in the WNBA.

It's good to measure positive change, like women’s full court professional basketball. Recognizing these changes is what we celebrate in March as Women's History Month. But I'm done with simply celebrating where we've been. Instead, it's time to look at March as more a celebration of our future: let’s call it “Women Making History Month.”

Old stereotypes still stand in our way. Even today, only two-thirds of adults in this country think a woman could be president, according to a CNN/Opinion Research survey. Meanwhile, state legislatures -- the farm teams for future leaders -- have only one-quarter representation by women, a pitiful ratio that has remained unchanged for a decade. The U.S. ranks 69th in the world for women's legislative representation with only 16 percent women in Congress.

We’re missing a lot and it doesn't have to be this way. The leaders of some countries have realized that it really does matter who makes the decisions. They see what our leaders have not yet recognized: having more women at the top is good business and smart politics. For example, in Norway, women make up 36 percent of the members on corporate boards, while in the U.S. progress seems stalled at not quite 15 percent. How did Norway they do it? In 2003, Norway passed a tough law that requires all public companies to ensure that their boards are 40 percent women. By 2007, 85 percent of their public companies met the mark.

Smart leaders in Norway and other countries that focus on tapping the talents of women realize that the talent base of the future is at least half women. In an increasingly competitive world, no business or nation that fails to tap that talent is likely to succeed. We need to play catch-up and focus on women's advancement as a key part of our competitiveness. The World Economic Forum ranks women’s advancement by country, the U.S. has now fallen to 31st.

What an irony, then, that in the U.S., the talent pipeline is filled with women. By 2010, women are expected to hold 60 percent of the nation's wealth. Since 1996, a higher proportion of women than men have graduated from college, and the trend-line is only expected to accelerate. But we'll continue to waste a lot of that talent unless we transform our outmoded model of "only men need apply" leadership.

One way to tap our wellspring of female talent is to have a critical mass of women in decision-making positions. They bring new ideas and networks to reach the new talent; that offers the promise of no more excuses about a lack of “qualified women." When women decision-makers join the ranks of men in similar positions, the bottom-line results improve for shareholders and stakeholders.

More women at the table and in the corner offices helps to shape the future; a modernized policy agenda emerges to address lagging issues like the wage gap and supports for working families. One major payoff to society is the stronger families that result from a cultural shift to a definition of personal success that encompasses earning, caring and care-taking. Ultimately, more women joining the ranks of decision-makers will make us more competitive as we leave the past behind and utilize the creativity, energy and skill of more of our citizens.

How do we move into a better future? Decision-makers must ensure that there are women in every pool of candidates for every position from supervisor to CEO. Political parties and public officials must develop goals and timetables to get more women into political office; 101 other countries in the world already do it. Women who have made it need to unapologetically wedge the door open for other qualified women, particularly younger ones.

This March, it is not enough to look backwards. Women in the United States have plenty more to accomplish; we plan to make history, in the best sense of that phrase. But the mindset that "American women are doing fine, thank you" clouds the reality that we need more women at the top to make the tough calls.

Playing by different rules that undervalue women's contributions has no place in basketball, business or politics.

Women's future and the country's future are the same. Let's celebrate that -- and go make some history.
Tarr-Whelan is a senior fellow at Demos, a think tank and a former Ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.