Despite progress, the health of our nation’s children is at risk
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Seven years ago, Congress enacted landmark legislation directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update nutrition standards for school meals. It was a long overdue step. Childhood obesity rates in the United States had tripled over the previous three decades, but it had been 15 years since nutrition standards for those programs had been updated. 

The Renton School District just outside of Seattle offers a compelling case study on the resulting impact. Researchers at the University of Washington analyzed 1.7 million meals served to 7,200 Renton students between 2011 and 2014. Assessing the amount of nutrients such as calcium, protein, and fiber, they found that the meals’ overall nutritional quality increased by 29 percent, and that the number of students eating school meals held steady.

The findings are part of a larger success story on school meals nationwide. In addition to the positive data coming out of individual districts like Renton and elsewhere, USDA reports that 99 percent of schools nationwide have implemented the standards successfully. Surveys of school leaders nationwide revealed widespread student acceptance. A national poll found that among registered voter parents with school-age children, more than 70 percent of those surveyed support the updates.

Despite these major steps forward, USDA plans to roll back some school meal standards. That would be the wrong move at the wrong time. Childhood obesity rates have stabilized nationwide over the past decade. A growing number of places have recently reported declines in childhood obesity rates, including 31 states reporting declining obesity rates among young children from low-income families.

As public health professionals committed to reversing the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic we’re mindful of the future. The just-released 2017 State of Obesity report found that adult obesity rates declined in only one state in 2016, after declining in four states in 2015. But only four states saw their rates go up in 2016, a far cry from as recently as 2010, when 16 states experienced increases.

One of the best ways to bring down those adult obesity rates in every state is to prevent children from becoming overweight or obese in the first place. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, who can face conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain kinds of cancers. These conditions cut down on years and quality of life, drive health care costs, and hurt the economy.

Unfortunately, there are signs that we are moving in the wrong direction—and not just on school meals.

In addition to providing children and family with the means to purchase nutritious food, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is proven to lift children out of poverty, improve their health, and help them succeed in school, all of which are connected to lowering the risk of obesity and associated conditions. Yet the administration has proposed cutting nearly $200 billion from SNAP.

Medicaid provides health insurance coverage to nearly 40 percent of children under 18, and covers a range of obesity screening, prevention, and treatment options for children. Nevertheless, Congress has considered health reform legislation that would kick many children and families off the program, and the administration has proposed more than $800 billion in cuts.

These kinds of threats put at grave risk the progress our nation has achieved. To accelerate progress in addressing obesity, we urge policymakers to support proven programs like school meals and SNAP that put kids on a healthier track for their entire lives, and maintain full funding for agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that are responsible for protecting the health of kids and adults nationwide.

When the updated nutrition standards took effect, school officials in Renton did more than just follow the letter of the law. They partnered with farmers across Washington to get farm fresh offerings on the menu. They ran taste tests for kids. And they adorned the walls of the cafeteria with bright pictures of fresh produce.

When smart policies and sufficient resources meet caring leaders with creative ideas, the possibilities are endless. Local leaders in places like Renton are driving positive change every day.  Our leaders in Washington, D.C. must follow their example.

Richard Besser, MD, is the president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. John Auerbach is the president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health.