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Obesity prevention program

A federal pilot program offering free fruits and vegetables to school kids has been a success by most accounts. But federal lawmakers aren't sure they can foot the bill to keep the program afloat, much less to expand it.

The one-year pilot program, which was tested in 107 schools, has students eating healthier foods _ voluntarily. Students ate the fresh produce and were even willing to try unfamiliar foods. Though it's too early to measure the program's long-term health effects, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report states that the program visibly reduced obesity, promoted healthier overall diets and raised health awareness. Congress passed legislation extending the pilot program earlier this year, but only provided enough funds to continue it for a couple months.

While finalizing the 2004 budget for the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services department _ the USDA branch through which the program is funded _ Congress should at least fully fund the pilot for another year and then assess the results.

With child and adolescent obesity increasing at alarming rates in the United States, expansion would be well worth the cost. The American Obesity Association reports that 15 percent of 6-year-olds to 19-year-olds were obese in 2000. All told, the direct cost of obesity in the United States is was more than $100-billion a year in 1999, according to the most recent study conducted for the AOA. The cost of the prevention program is inexpensive by comparison.

Prevention efforts for schoolchildren, like the free fruit and vegetable program, are crucial because eating habits develop in childhood. Obese kids turn into obese adults. If parents will not or cannot enforce healthy eating habits, then schools should do what they can to fill that role.