By William Frist, MD and Tom Daschle
May 4, 2016 | The Hill
While headlines harp that the U.S. is a nation “hopelessly divided,” there is something lawmakers can band together on: forging a solution to our obesity epidemic. In addition to being one of the greatest health threats our nation has ever faced, it is a terrible burden for employers, who are forced to spend more than $73 billion in costs associated with overweight-related medical and lost productivity costs every year. Obesity also threatens national security, as the leading medical reason why 71 percent of young adults between the ages of 17 and 24 cannot qualify for military service.
The good news is that Congress has the opportunity to sustain recent improvements to school nutrition programs—a major step forward since many young people consume up to half of their daily calories during the school day.
That’s the headline from Capitol Hill, thanks to the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously passing the bipartisan Improve Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act in January.
Last week, a House version of the child nutrition reauthorization was introduced, but without the strong bipartisan support the Senate garnered. It is now up to the House Education and Workforce Committee to find common ground with the Senate to move this issue forward.
This is important for two key reasons. First, the bipartisan precursor to this legislation, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, became one of the most meaningful factors in the fight against obesity because it required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nutrition standards for school meals and for snack foods sold in school vending machines and cafeterias. As a result of this, 98.5 percent of schools across the country are now implementing the updated standards and serving meals with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less sugar, fat, and salt.
A growing body of research shows that the healthier school meals are working. One of the most rigorous studies to date on the updated school meal standards recently published in the journalJAMA Pediatrics found that students are selecting healthier foods in the lunch line and continuing to participate in the meal program at a stable rate.
Another respected study published in the journal Childhood Obesity last year found that students ate nearly 20 percent more of their entrees and 40 percent more of their vegetables and threw less food away when the new guidelines went into effect.
Second, we need to give schools the flexibility to make these new nutrition standards work in their districts. Although schools around the nation continue to share success stories, the transition hasn’t been universally easy. Some schools have found it more difficult to create healthier options due to outdated equipment and/or challenges in obtaining healthier ingredients. Others have found it more difficult to foster student acceptance of the new offerings.
To address these challenges, the Senate’s bipartisan bill responds to concerns from schools while maintaining the integrity of the updated nutrition standards. It includes compromises on sodium and whole grain standards that will give school food service directors more flexibility in how they plan menus and choose products. It also authorizes new federal funding for schools to purchase kitchen equipment and provide training for school cafeteria staff.
This progress is promising, but as former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders from different political parties, we want to ensure this effort to improve nutrition at school crosses the finish line. That’s why we stand with the retired military leaders who, as members of Mission: Readiness, are encouraging members of the House Education and Workforce Committee to take steps to protect these nutrition standards when they take their bill up in Committee, while urging the full Senate to pass the Improve Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act as well.
Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) bridged a large policy divide to find a bipartisan compromise with the Improve Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act, and our hope is that the House will learn from their successes as they seek to strengthen their bill in Committee. These are the smartest moves we can make right now to support a Culture of Health and national security in future years.