Fatter Futures?

Before Labor Day, my 6-year old daughter went to the opening day of first grade and came back with a school lunch menu. In a model of transparency, the school provides nutritional information on those meals. An opening day lunch option – shrimp ‘poppers’ with ‘cheesy’ rice and fruit or applesauce – provided a whopping 50 % of my daughter’s recommended allowance of fat for the day.

Perhaps this helps explain why more than 25 million children are now obese or overweight.

Unfortunately, last week’s report from the Trust for America’s Health points out that we are getting fatter!

There is a lot more than proactive Farm Bill policies could do to encourage more nutritious diets and help the environment.

Let’s start with kids – it’s not acceptable that today’s generation may be the first not to outlive their parents.

Congress must do more to encourage healthy eating choices in our schools. For starters school lunches – which are heavily subsidized by USDA – should look a lot more like the fruit- and vegetable-heavy food pyramid USDA pushes. Senator Menendez from New Jersey and Senator Stabenow from Michigan have already proposed giving USDA further direction do so. In particular, Senator Menendez’s bill expands support for programs that expand the connections between a healthy environment and healthy foods. Too many farmers offering to help improve the environment are turned away because USDA lacks the money to partner with them.

The Senate should also expand the Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program which provides free healthy snacks to school children. Run as a pilot under the 2002 Farm Bill, the program has been credited with getting kids excited about fruits and vegetables and improving the learning environment.

Unfortunately, the House of Representatives provided only enough funding for 35 schools per state to start new healthy snack programs. This will help less than 1 percent of the 94,000 public schools in America. The Senate should do better.

And too often, farmers are shut out from providing healthy local foods to schools in their own communities. Local farmers and children would benefit by expanding the ‘farm-to-Cafeteria’ program. This program helps schools set up purchasing arrangements with small local farms and retrofit school cafeterias to handle actual cooking as opposed to just reheating pre-packaged meals. Listen to Berkeley California school ‘lunch lady’ Ann Cooper talks about getting a healthy lunch in front of every child. Such local purchasing arrangement also helps keep local farms in business and provide open space and other benefits Americans value.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has announced that the Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program will be a priority for his Committee’s Farm Bill along with other children’s health and conservation priorities. This should include increased funding to help farmers convert to organic production, reducing the use of chemicals that end up in our rivers, lakes, and bays.

There are 25 million children whose healthy future and environment depends in part upon the success of these programs.