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Opinion: Don't reverse progress on school lunch

WASHINGTON — Parents trust their family pediatrician to help make informed choices about their children’s health — not politicians or special interests. That’s why when developing the first meaningful improvements to school meals in 30 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned to the people who care the most for kids, including pediatricians and other respected health, nutrition and school meal professionals.

For the past three years, kids have eaten healthier breakfasts, lunches and snacks at school, thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which improved the nutrition of foods and beverages served in cafeterias and sold in vending machines. Our kids are getting healthier as a result. Parents and pediatricians approve. But some politicians in Congress aren’t so happy. Now that the act is up for reauthorization in Congress, opponents are straining to roll back the progress we’ve made, putting your children’s potential in the hands of Washington interests. This, despite a national obesity crisis that costs the country $190.2 billion per year to treat.

Healthier school meals were developed based on recommendations by doctors and nutrition, health and school meal experts. They gave us the same nutrition advice they give you — kids should eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods.

Opponents would have you think kids won’t eat the healthier meals because they are too burdensome on schools. But we’ve talked to the dedicated school meal professionals working in school cafeterias, as well as the students, and the negative rhetoric does not match reality.

We have listened carefully to schools and provided time, flexibility, guidance and hundreds of millions of dollars in financial support. As a result, more than 95 percent of schools across the country, and 100 percent of schools in Utah, are now meeting the standards.

These changes haven’t happened overnight. USDA continues to work with schools that are having difficulty preparing healthier meals. USDA recently launched a program called Team Up for School Nutrition Success that allows schools still working to meet the standards to pair up and learn best practices from schools that already are successfully serving healthier meals. The program has provided training for 3,029 individuals and has been enthusiastically received by schools.

The fact is, most schools support the new standards. A recent survey by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project found that 70 percent of food service staff and school administrators at the elementary and middle school levels say kids like the healthier meals. Another study from the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health found that nearly 90 percent of surveyed students liked at least some school meal options.

A recent Harvard study shows the standards are working, as evidenced by statistics that show kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch — astounding progress in three years. Some predicted kids would reject healthy food and throw more food away, but the same study showed the critics were wrong.

There was bipartisan support for healthier school meals when the act passed in 2010, and that remains true today. A recent survey found 87 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and more than half of registered voters with kids in public schools surveyed were supportive of the new meals.

Path to change

This is not only a question of what’s right or wrong for kids. It’s also a national security and an economic issue. One in five young adults is too overweight to serve in the military. The cost of treating obesity-related illnesses drags down our economy and increases budget deficits. If we don’t continue to invest in our children, this generation will be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.

Today, we are on a path to change that, thanks to parents, teachers, doctors and kids who cared enough to fight for higher standards. Because of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, our children have more energy to learn and grow, greater opportunity to thrive, and better overall health. Our children have healthier school meals than we ever did.

What Congress is really considering now is whether kids deserve a healthier future. The answer is yes, and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act ensures it.

Editor’s note: Vilsack is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.