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Empty Stomachs and Empty Minds: Why 37 Million Children Can't Be Wrong

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In 2010, our fight to improve children's health surpassed a milestone with the passage of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFK) and the implementation of first lady Michele Obama's "Let's Move" campaign. With one stroke of President Obama's pen, we laid the foundation for providing healthier food options in schools, taking a giant step towards prioritizing the health of American children.

The success of our efforts have been crystal clear; in more than 90 percent of American schools, whole grains and vegetables have replaced foods saturated in fat, laden with sugar, and filled with salt.

Across the nation, pizza has decreased in calories, chicken is now baked instead of fried, and biscuits have been swapped for whole-wheat rolls. While these substitutions may seem simple and common sense to some, they are key examples of the progress we've made towards bettering the health and well-being of our children.

But now, four years later, our progress is in danger of being reversed. Opponents of our progress want to give out waivers that will no longer require cafeterias to abide by healthier food standards. From the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, to blogs and Facebook, they have attacked the sound the advice of doctors, educators, nutritionists, and even the first lady, who all agree on one thing: these provisions work!

Opponents of progress believe that because 1 million kids don't like eating healthier options at school, all 37 million children who participate in the school nutrition program should be denied a chance at a healthier future. Furthermore, I'd like to ask opponents of progress why a small minority of children get to dictate nutrition standards for an entire nation?

Although HHFK affects children across the nation, it has played an especially important role in the lives of kids from low-income families and rural areas. Unfortunately, proper nutrition has become a luxury. It's too expensive for many families to eat well.

Adhering to daily nutrition recommendations is often an afterthought for low-income families who can barely afford to put food on the table. This is especially true for folks living in food deserts, which are plagued by an abundance of fast food restaurants, and rarely have grocery stores where people can access fresh fruits and vegetables. Due to these environmental and economic factors, schools tend to be the only source of a well- balanced, nutritious meal for low-income and rural children.

Providing healthy food options in schools sets children on the track to lead long, healthy lives. In a country where the number of children affected by diabetes, heart disease, and obesity is rising, providing a well-rounded, nutritious, and balanced diet will work to counteract these epidemics.

But healthy food initiatives not only ensure longevity; they also build the foundation for better outcomes and performance in the classroom. Studies conducted by Oxford and Essex Universities found that when students receive a nutritious meal in school, classroom participation and tests scores increase. In the long run, giving kids healthy meals today will produce successful adults tomorrow, who are prepared to conquer the workforce and propel the American economy forward.

The health of our children is on the line. I can only hope that Congress will keep the promise it made in 2010 by voting to uphold the nutrition standards of HHFK. We owe it to our kids to give them the best future possible.