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Healthy School Lunches: A Real Solution for So Many Problems

By Sen. Chip Rogers

This letter was printed on April 6, 2010, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

If we had sent Marines into Marja without adequate artillery and air support, do you think they would have been successful? Thankfully, we didn’t make that mistake. But we’re doing something similar in school cafeterias. We’re asking food service directors to improve school lunches without giving adequate funding, equipment, or healthful options.

It may seem like a stretch to compare national security to the foods children put on their lunch trays. But the creation of the National School Lunch Program was actually prompted by national defense concerns. After the Great Depression, many potential draftees were undernourished and not fit to serve.

In 1944, Richard B. Russell, a United States senator from Georgia, proposed a school lunch program—later signed into law as the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act—to combat malnutrition and ensure that kids were getting enough calories and other nutrients. Sen. Russell had seen firsthand how hunger had affected Georgians, especially children.

These days, we have the opposite problem. Some children, of course, still don’t get enough to eat—but millions of others consume too much unhealthy food. As a Georgia state senator, I am painfully aware of the obesity epidemic sweeping the nation. Georgia now has the third highest rate of obese and overweight children in the country—a shocking 37 percent.

Our national security may again be at stake. A recent study found that 27 percent of young adults are too overweight to even qualify to fight for our country. If you add in those who cannot demonstrate a minimum level of physical fitness, this number rises to more than one-third.

The federal Child Nutrition Act, which helps determine what foods are offered to schools, is being debated in Congress. On the front lines of the obesity battle, some members of Congress are working hard to ensure the new Child Nutrition Act means healthier food for kids. Rep. Jared Polis has introduced the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010, a bill that would help schools add more fruits, vegetables, and low-fat plant-based meal options to fight obesity and other chronic diseases.

When you look at the physical condition of America’s young people, it’s clear that child nutrition is still impacting our national defense. And when you look at school lunch lines, it’s immediately clear why young people are so out of shape.

School lunch lines are loaded with processed meat, pepperoni pizza, and tater tots. Under the current system, the federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars buying up processed meat, cheese, and other unhealthful products. They in turn offer these products to schools at a low, subsidized price. This system often rewards agribusiness for producing products that consumers don’t want or need, and it is a major reason why more than 70 percent of schools serve meals with more saturated fat than federal guidelines allow.

Unhealthy school lunches are not only affecting our national defense—they are straining our budget and increasing health care costs. In 2008, we spent more than $147 billion on obesity-related medical costs.

Add in the price tags attached to other diet-related chronic diseases, and it’s clear why the system is struggling. As today’s children age, the health care system will not get a break. One of every three children born in 2000 is expected to eventually develop diabetes.

Lives are at stake, both on our front lines and in school lunch lines. As a matter of national security, fiscal health, and the overall health of our youngest citizens, we must support the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010 and help children win the battle against obesity.

Sen. Chip Rogers is the Majority Leader of the Georgia Senate.


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