It’s no secret that good nutrition provides an important foundation for our children’s physical and mental health. We know that children who have access to nutritious meals see greater success in the classroom and are set up to have healthier habits throughout their lifetimes. So, why then, are there currently efforts in Congress to roll back the school nutrition standards passed in the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act? This legislation, which must be reauthorized every five years, is due to expire at the end of the month.
Each day, 32 million children rely on the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Programs to provide them with meals that fill them up and keep them going throughout the day. These meals should have high nutritional value, and it’s the job of Congress to protect, not strike down, the standards already in place. Failure to do so can have serious consequences for the health of our nation’s children.
As a pediatric endocrinologist, I have spent my career caring for children, specifically those living with diabetes. All children depend on their parents, guardians and our schools to provide them with the nutritional meals they need each day to thrive. For children living with, or at risk for, type 2 diabetes, eating healthy is a key tool in maintaining their overall wellbeing and preventing chronic diseases.
For children with type 1 diabetes, good nutrition isn’t just an ideal, it’s critical to their daily management of the disease. Poor food choices can cause erratic glucose levels in a child living with type 1, leading to an acute impact on their health and the potential for serious short-term and long-term complications.
Much of my work at the American Diabetes Association focuses on high-risk populations who are disparately affected by diabetes. Children from low-income communities and minority populations do not always have access to nutritious food. Often, meals provided at school are the most healthful food options these children will have all day. The National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Programs provide an opportunity to improve the overall nutrition of these children at highest risk for childhood obesity and the devastating associated complications, including type 2 diabetes. While curbing the trajectory of the obesity epidemic can’t be accomplished overnight, stripping the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Programs of their nutritional standards would be a major step backwards in the ongoing fight to keep our children healthy, especially those in high-risk populations.
Each year, the U.S. invests $15 billion into the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Programs. With such an investment, Congress should be adamant about upholding the nutritional standards put into place through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. In addition to maintaining nutrition standards for meals, Congress should resist pressure to exempt a la carte items from nutrition standards: If students can buy less-healthy items individually, they will load up on fat, sugar and sodium minus the nutrients contained in a balanced meal.
Beyond protecting the fiscal investment, there’s even more reason to protect these standards—they’re working! Since the standards went into place, children are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruits at school. Across the country, 95 percent of schools are in compliance with the nutritional standards and a recent study found that children are embracing the healthy changes.
Congress should also include three additional bills as part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization: the Farm to School Act of 2015, which reauthorizes and expands the program that increases schools’ access to local foods; the Summer Meals Act of 2015, which ensures low-income children have access to healthy and nutritious food over the summer, after school, on weekends and during school holidays; and the School Food Modernization Act, which provides loan guarantees for kitchen infrastructure and equipment upgrades and supports training and technical assistance.
Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE has asked that Congress not only reauthorize, but strengthen healthy food breakfast and lunch programs and has encouraged states to take advantage of the $28.2 million still available to help school districts implement changes.
As an endocrinologist and a mom, it’s hard for me to accept that 1 in 3 American adults will have diabetes in 2050 if we don’t do more to stop the disease. The adults of 2050 are the children of today. Congress must take steps now to tackle chronic illnesses, like diabetes, and protecting nutritional standards in our child nutrition programs is an important place to start.
Chiang is senior vice president, Medical and Community Affairs, for the American Diabetes Association and a pediatric endocrinologist.