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School lunch program could save $103 billion

Last week, Congress passed a last-minute spending bill to keep the government's lights on for the next three months, but they let the Child Nutrition Act expire. While the emergency funding bill covers school lunch, school breakfast and other critical nutrition programs for kids, our nation's students need more than a stopgap approach. Because no matter how you look at it the numbers add up, the science is clear, and history tells us: an investment in our kids' health is a wise and necessary one.

Let's start with the math: One in three of our nation's kids is overweight or obese, and as a country we spend $190 billion a year in medical costs to fight this epidemic. But these costs aren't just incurred by health insurance companies; they're a major burden on taxpayers. The biggest single driver of our national debt is health care spending through Medicare and Medicaid. Research has shown that spending would be much lower for these programs – 8.5 percent and 11.8 percent respectively or $103 billion in 2014 alone – were it not for obesity. This cost will only increase as our nation's "obesity generation" grows up. In 2030, direct medical expenses attributed to diet-related disease will hit an annual cost of $66 billion per year, and the overall loss in economic productivity could be as much as $580 billion annually.

A file photo of a school cafeteria.
Baerbel Schmidt | Getty Images
A file photo of a school cafeteria.

What science tells us about the obesity epidemic is just as worrisome. The research paints an alarming portrait of obesity's effects on a child's health, happiness and human potential. In the near term, an obese child will have fewer friends, miss more days of school and score lower on tests. As she becomes an adult, she will be less likely to go to college, be out sick more at work and under perform in her career. Before her life is over, she can be expected to battle weight-related illnesses – heart disease, diabetes, cancer or all three – and to raise children who themselves face elevated risks of obesity, sending the spiral into another downward turn. Making matters worse,diet-related disease takes a disproportionate toll on low-income children and children of color, erecting another barrier in our nation's fight for equity and opportunity.

Thankfully, recent history demonstrates how we can begin to address the problem. The 2010 version of the Child Nutrition Act, known as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, was a bipartisan and particularly health-supporting version of the every-five-years bill that funds our nation's school meal programs. It set high standards for school meals around whole grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins, an essential step toward treating our nation's epidemic of diet-related disease for the 31 million children who eat school food. Implementation of these ambitious standards has been challenging, but in districts where they have been met with creativity, resourcefulness and hard work, students have embraced the healthier diet they are being offered. And it's paying off: it appears the obesity epidemic is finally beginning to reverse.

The organization I co-founded, FoodCorps, launched alongside the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act five years ago. Through hands-on nutrition education in the classroom, gardening and cooking lessons in the schoolyard, and kid-led taste-tests and recipe development in the cafeteria, FoodCorps leaders have partnered with farmers, teachers,parents and food service teams to help some 500 schools become healthier places for kids to eat, learn and grow.

The combination of garden-based education and improved school meals is rooted in a research-backed approach to connecting children to healthy food, known as "farm-to-school." In addition to raising school meal standards across the board, the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act also supported farm-to-school grant funding at $5 million a year. Now, with research showing that the farm-to-school approach works and the demand for the program five times greater than Congress originally earmarked, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Representatives has stepped up with a call to increase the program's funding to at least $15 million annually in this year's Child Nutrition Act.

When Congress debates the upcoming Child Nutrition Act, they will decide what our children eat in school for the next five years. Congress' role as our nation's Lunch Lady must be taken seriously. With this vote, our legislators have an opportunity to stand firm and protect the high standards for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein that have made school lunches healthier, and to scale up the funding for farm-to-school initiatives that have gotten millions of kids excited to eat healthy food.

In passing a bipartisan bill that takes another step forward in the fight for healthy kids, Congress has a chance to give voters just what they want; a recent poll by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation showed that 86 percent of Americans want school nutrition standards to be strengthened or maintained, and 88 percent support increased funding for farm-to-school programs. Congress also has a chance to show that they've done their homework and learned a fundamental lesson: healthy food is a building block for health, opportunity and human potential––and every child deserves it.

Curt Ellis is the co-founder and CEO of FoodCorps, a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to healthy food in school.

Correction: An earlier version of this OpEd misstated the number of obese kids in America. It is 1 in 3.