Hunger-Free Kids -- What a Great Idea!

Americans care deeply about childhood education, which is building America's future for our communities, our economy and our families. Yet when it comes to educating healthy children -- providing healthy food and developing good dietary habits -- our track record is unfortunate.

To start, too many children come from families that are food insecure, lacking regular access to healthy food. One half of American children will be on food stamps in their lifetime. Every month, 63 percent of teachers buy food for children in their classrooms because they face such a need. Over 20 percent of American households are just plain hungry. Sadly, in my state of Oregon, those percentages are even higher.

We also too often provide food that doesn't offer the right nutrition. Many children who aren't hungry per se are instead hungry for the right foods, and not just the empty calories of which they consume far too many. Pizza, soda and baked goods are the top three sources of calories for our children, which is part of the reason that childhood obesity has more than doubled since 1980.  Today, one in three children is overweight or obese.

One of the most direct ways to attack the problem is in our schools, where over 31 million children receive over five billion meals every year. It's no longer just school lunches, in fact; our schools increasingly provide school breakfasts and school dinners. That's because far too many low-income children experience school as the only place they are going to get the food they need.

Yet school food is too often high in starch and lacks fresh fruits and vegetables. Indeed, 40 percent of American children do not get fresh fruits and vegetables in school on a daily basis. Recently, Congress actually held up funding for the new nutritional guidelines for school meals. It's well past time for us to get our act together.

We should honor National School Breakfast Week by building upon the Hunger-Free Kids Act that we passed in 2010. Shouldn't we do better than adding six cents per meal to the reimbursement rate? Can't we allocate more than $40 million for mandatory farm-to-school funding to help schools provide local fresh fruits and vegetables? Isn't it time to establish stronger national nutritional standards for all foods provided throughout the school day? And maybe -- just maybe -- the House of Representatives should reconsider and overturn our previous support for pizza as a vegetable.

We know what to do. At Abernethy Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, parents, students, and faculty are partners in an innovative food program where kids grow the food themselves, study it, prepare it, and eat it. And this is not an isolated example. Nationally, there are now over 9,000 school programs that include nutrition and gardening programs to provide this vital connection between learning and good nutrition.

It's time for Congress to stop turning their backs on our children's health and to step forward, be more deeply involved, resist the special interests and make children's nutrition a priority.