Changing a generation's food habits takes longer than a few years, and returning school lunchrooms to their old ways certainly won't help.
Nonetheless, just four years after passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the U.S. House is pushing to lower the quality of food served in public schools. Under the regulations, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, schools have been required to offer vegetables, fruits and whole grains in place of foods heavy in fat, sugar and sodium. It's part of a nationwide effort to battle high rates of childhood obesity; about 17 percent, or 12.5 million, children in the United States are considered obese.
Nine out of 10 schools are reporting that the guidelines are being met, but House Republicans apparently are listening to critics who complain the standards are too strict and cause a financial burden. And there have been anecdotal news reports that more children are throwing food away. The House's proposed solution, tucked into an agricultural spending bill: Give schools that lost money for six straight months a one-year reprieve from the new standards, including higher standards that are scheduled for the future. By serving less healthful options they could boost sales, the argument goes.
But government should make policy based on research, not anecdotes. A report released this year by the Harvard School of Public Health shows students are consuming healthier fare and that food waste is actually down. Students threw out about 40 percent of fruits both before and after the standards. But discarding of vegetables is down from 75 percent to 60 percent. Any parent of a picky eater would know that's progress.
House Republicans need to look beyond the initial bottom lines when it comes to school cafeteria budgets. The new standards are an attempt at long-term, systemic change in diet of American children, not a short-term fix. It is an investment in improved health and lower health care costs. And it's an acknowledgement of the leading role schools play in children's environment, particularly for low-income children whose only square meal may come during the school day. The United States already spends an estimated $190 billion a year treating obesity-related conditions. It's time to reverse that trend. And there is no better place to start than supporting healthy eating habits for our youngest citizens.