Adults, Including Congress, Also Need to Make the Right Choices

As parents, we have the responsibility to make the right choices for our children, especially in the early years. Over time, that slowly changes, as we begin to help guide our child's choices so that they learn for themselves "to make the right choices."

And, as adults in society, we also have the responsibility to take action on behalf of our nation's children when we see problems facing our youngest and most vulnerable kids -- whether it is increasing child poverty, child abuse and neglect, violence, child health, education or child nutrition.

On the issue of child nutrition, we have a national crisis related to childhood obesity with very clear data highlighting the problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "The percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12-19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent over the same period." For adolescents, the percentage of children who are obese has more than quadrupled in the past 30 years.

In a report entitled America's Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S. by First Focus and Save the Children, the point is made that:

Without addressing this epidemic, this generation of Americans will be the first to have a shorter life span than their parents. We need to work together to reverse this growing trend and ensure a healthier future for our children.

For some time, change has been needed. In 2003, Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified before the House of Representatives about the growing crisis of obesity as being "the fastest-growing cause of disease and death in America." He outlined President George W. Bush's "HealthierUS Initiative" and spoke to the importance of tackling childhood obesity. As he said:

...the bad news is that an unprecedented number of children are carrying excess body weight. That excess weight significantly increases our kids' risk factors for a range of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and emotional and mental health problems.

Surgeon General Carmona personally committed to "visiting schools across America in my 50 Schools in 50 States Initiative to talk with kids about avoiding drugs and alcohol, avoiding tobacco in every form, being physically active, eating right, and making healthy choices every day."

Dr. Carmona also called for public and private sector action and partnerships to combat the problem. As he said:

Our children did not create this problem. Adults did. Adults increased the portion size of children's meals, developed the games and television that children find spellbinding, and chose the sedentary lifestyles that our children emulate. So adults must take the lead in solving this problem.

He concluded:

We must all work together to help our children lead healthy lives...We need physical activity and healthy food choices in every school in America. We need better food choices at affordable prices in every neighborhood in America.

In an effort to curb rising childhood obesity rates and to reduce child hunger, one place to focus on improving the school lunch program. As a result, in 2010 during the last child nutrition reauthorization, a bipartisan group in Congress came together and passed much needed improvements through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Just four years ago as the legislation was being considered, Jen Christensen of CNN reported:

The No. 1 meal served to children in U.S. schools is chicken fingers and French fries. Processed food is much cheaper to serve than fresh produce. A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that 94 percent of school lunches failed to meet the U.S. Agriculture Department's regulatory standards. None of the schools met the sodium benchmark, based on the 2005 dietary guidelines. One in five schools served lunches that met the total fat standard. It's no wonder, then, that another study from 2009 that looked at children who participated in the National School Lunch Program found they were more likely to gain weight than other children.

Although school meals previously had standards, the new law directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use the most up-to-date science and research to make these standards more current with what is needed for a child's daily nutrition.

Since children spend a significant amount of time in school and anywhere from a third to half of their daily calories are consumed while in school, it is important when families send their children to school that kids don't receive mixed messages about what is healthy and what they should be eating each day. Parents count of schools to "do right" by our children and to ensure that, just as kids learn reading and math skills that lay the foundation for later learning and success, healthy eating is taught and modeled throughout the school day as well.

This is important for all kids, but especially for low-income children. Low-income children often times don't have a choice as to whether they eat a school meal or not, as there family may not be able to afford to send them to school with a lunch. That's why it's important that we put a priority on all children gaining access to healthy meals when they receive a meal at school. Simply put, schools should be a partner in combating childhood obesity and not contributing to it.

Great progress has been made. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 90 percent of school food authorities (SFAs) were meeting the certification standards to qualify for the 6 cent per lunch performance-based reimbursement to schools that meet the National School Lunch program and School Breakfast Program meal standards including in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

A study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that kids are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch since implementation of the rules, which have improved the nutritional quality of school meals by making whole grains, fruits, and vegetables more available, removing trans fats, and placing limits on total calories and sodium levels.

As First Lady Michelle Obama wrote in the New York Times:

This is a big win for parents who are working hard to serve their kids balanced meals at home and don't want their efforts undermined during the day at school. And it's a big win for all of us since we spend more than $10 billion a year on school lunches and should not be spending those hard-earned taxpayer dollars on junk food for our children.

As she adds, these efforts are achieving success:

Today, we are seeing glimmers of progress. Tens of millions of kids are getting better nutrition in school; families are thinking more carefully about food they eat, cook and buy; companies are rushing to create healthier products to meet the growing demand; and the obesity rate is finally beginning to fall from its peak among our youngest children.

Unfortunately, there are efforts in Congress to roll back the school lunch standards that are working to improve child health and nutrition. The House of Representatives will likely vote this coming week on whether they include a legislative rider in the Agriculture Appropriations bill that undermines the current standards by making it optional for schools to meet the nutritional standards.

Echoing the words of President Bush's Surgeon General a decade ago, current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and former Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, who served in President Bush's administration from 2001 to 2005, wrote an Op-Ed in The Hill that points out:

Politics should never trump sound policy, particularly when it comes to our kids...Now is not the time to backpedal on a healthier future for our kids. Two-thirds of adults and one-third of American children are overweight or obese. The cost of treating obesity-related illnesses is $190.2 billion per year, dragging down our economy and increasing budget deficits. If nothing changes, this generation of children will be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.

As Vilsack and Veneman conclude:

There's no reason to turn back the clock now...It will take persistence and strong leadership by families, schools, states and USDA to ensure continued success in the fight for a healthier next generation. We stand ready for the challenge and we expect our Congressional leaders to do the same. Anything less would be a betrayal to our nation's children.

At the First Focus Campaign for Children, we agree with Secretaries Vilsack and Veneman in urging the Congress to make the right choices and put the health and nutrition of our nation's children ahead of the special interests of the fast food and frozen food industries.

As the First Lady tweeted earlier this week: