Our children’s nutrition policy shouldn’t be an issue that divides along political, racial or class lines —there is little ideological justification for rejecting programs that could create long term health benefits and eliminate long term health detriments for America’s next generation of workers. More than 30% of American children are either obese or overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and in minority communities that percentage is as high as 40%. Those children, in turn, have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, diseases that are mitigable or preventable, and increasingly costly for all Americans (by weighing down Social Security and raising insurance premiums). Cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death among adult Americans in 2009, the most recent year for which the CDC had a full data set.
An issue with consequences this serious and an impact that stretches decades into our future, deserves a solution with our full and undivided support. Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, which aims to decrease childhood obesity and eliminate food deserts (the lack of supermarkets and other nutritious and cheap food vendors in inner cities), has found support. “Let’s Move!” has actually been an unprecedented success, netting both public and private support from Wal-Mart, (which has agreed to cut back on sodium, trans fat, and overall calories in its products) to the National Beverage Association (which has agreed to replace its full calorie sodas at schools with lower calorie and smaller portioned offerings and to post caloric information visibly on the front of all packaging) to the US Council of Mayors to chefs and restaurant supply companies the nation over (who have given schools supplies, recipes, their time and oversight and specially pint-sized salad bars). The National Restaurant Association’s annual “Hot Trends” survey of the American Culinary Federation found that childhood nutrition and local food sourcing are gaining massive popularity and declared that they were likely to be among the top trends of 2012. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released new dietary requirements for schools in January for the first time in 15 years. They would reduce sodium and trans fat, while limiting calories to ranges appropriate for each age group, adding additional fruit and vegetable requirements, increasing the presence of whole grains and replacing whole milk with low or nonfat milk.
The frozen food and potato industries lobbied against proposed changes in nutritional guidelines and restrictions—for example a change that would reduce servings of starchy vegetables, like potatoes, to one meal a week, and another one that would strip pizza of the title of “vegetable” simply because it contains tomato paste. And Congress, while it passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, complied with these industries’ demands in its agricultural appropriations bill this year by forbidding the USDA from taking action on either issue.
Price is also at issue, with many school districts worried that even with an additional six cents per meal in federal government subsidies they may not be able to afford the changes. However, the USDA cut back on its priciest requirements (a meat or meat alternative served at every breakfast), and school nutrition associations, which back the new guidelines, are committed to finding affordable ways to meet them. As part of rallying cries for increased fiscal responsibility, politicians are claiming that the price of the subsidization itself is too much, though reducing meat requirements also halved the programs total sticker price.
Surprisingly, the most vocal nay-sayers were parents. At websites like patch.org, conservative parents are rallying against what some see as a restriction on their rights as and a critique of their abilities as parents, arguing that they should get to make decisions for their children, not the government. Unfortunately, these parents miss the point: these changes are being made for the sake of all children, but are only able to be enforced because of the prevalence of students consuming government subsidized meals. Those 32 million children receive more than half of their daily caloric intake at school and many live in households that because of food deserts—and other factors that Mrs. Obama is also working to change—can’t afford to buy nutritious food at other meals. Those children deserve a balanced meal, and to argue otherwise because your own child will be provided with healthier food is not just silly should they forget their lunch, it’s unacceptably selfish. America deserves a healthier future, and our First Lady is working hard to ensure that it has one.