Don't play politics with our children's health

Politics should never trump sound policy, particularly when it comes to our kids. 

Four years ago, Congress, in a strong bipartisan effort, committed to America’s children that they would enjoy healthier and more nutritious meals at school. Sadly, just as we are beginning to see the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 succeed, some in Congress want to step back from that commitment.

Now is not the time to backpedal on a healthier future for our kids. Two-thirds of adults and one-third of American children are overweight or obese. The cost of treating obesity-related illnesses is $190.2 billion per year, dragging down our economy and increasing budget deficits. If nothing changes, this generation of children will be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.

Thanks to HHFKA, parents, teachers, school nutrition professionals, doctors, nutritionists and USDA have implemented science-based nutrition standards based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine that make the school environment healthier for millions of American children.

Replacing fat-, sugar- and sodium-laden meals with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods at school should be a no-brainer. Access to nutritious meals reduces the risk of diet-related health problems and gives our kids a fair shot at a healthier, more productive future. 

It is outrageous, then, that certain members of Congress are now attempting to undo the progress we’ve made since the passage of the law.

Our nation's schools and schoolchildren are thriving under the new standards. School lunch revenue is up. A recent Harvard study showed that, thanks to the new standards, kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch—astounding progress in just two years. Some predicted kids would reject healthy food and throw more food away, but the same study showed the critics were wrong.

These changes haven't happened overnight. USDA has listened carefully to schools and provided time, flexibility, guidance and additional funding where needed. As a result, more than 90 percent of schools across the country are now meeting the standards. Kids are eating healthier in those schools because of it.  There's no reason to turn back the clock now.

Yet, some in Washington want the power to overrule experts and decide for themselves what goes on the lunch tray of school children. Our position is that pediatricians know better than politicians what's healthy for our kids.

It will take persistence and strong leadership by families, schools, states and USDA to ensure continued success in the fight for a healthier next generation. We stand ready for the challenge and we expect our Congressional leaders to do the same. Anything less would be a betrayal to our nation’s children.

Vilsack has served as the 30th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture since 2009. A Democrat, he was governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007. Veneman, a Republican, was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 2001 to 2005, and executive director of UNICEF from 2005 to 2010.