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Healthy School Lunches Could Slim Down Health Care Costs

By Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.
This opinion piece was published on Aug. 23, 2009, in The South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

In President Obama’s address to Congress this February, he said, “The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year.” But are our savings actually being eaten up by the foods we eat?

A new study calculated just how much we spend on obesity, which is caused largely by the high-fat meat and dairy products we pile in our shopping carts—and our school lunch lines. Annual obesity-related health care spending now reaches $147 billion, double what it was about a decade ago.

As a dietitian who works with school food service providers, I know that helping schools and other nutrition programs provide more fruits, vegetables, and other healthful foods could put a huge dent in obesity rates—and in nationwide medical spending. This would be a perfect way for the Obama administration to offset costs for the health care overhaul.

According to the study in Health Affairs, medical bills average $1,400 more a year for an obese person than for a normal weight person. That’s 42 percent more. The shocking percentage of children who are already overweight or obese—at least 30 percent of children in 30 states—highlights a desperate need to improve school lunches to encourage healthy behaviors early in life.

Obviously it's not just medical spending that underscores the need for childhood obesity prevention. It's also the psychological and social costs, the increase in risk of type 2 diabetes and other diseases, and the hazards of many treatments for obesity.

An abundance of studies show that a diet rich in plant-based foods can lower the risk of developing obesity and other chronic diseases. Unfortunately, I've seen many school lunch lines packed with hot dogs, pepperoni pizza, and beef burritos—with no fresh fruits or vegetables in sight.

It's common knowledge that children need to eat more fruits and vegetables. Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to funnel more meat and cheese into nutrition programs to appease agribusiness lobbyists. In fact, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack just announced that the USDA will purchase an additional 75 million pounds of cheese, on top of the hundreds of thousands of metric tons of cheese, butterfat, and other unhealthy dairy products it already dumps in school lunches.

President Obama and Congress showed their concern for children's health when they passed legislation to give children of low-income working parents access to medical care. But another piece of legislation could allow Congress to help these and other children stay healthy and stay out of the doctor's office.

The Child Nutrition Act, which helps determine what foods are served in schools, is up for reauthorization this summer. With a few small changes and shifts in subsidies—from sausage to strawberries, from cheddar cheese to chickpeas—this legislation could help turn around our nation's health.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the health care overhaul legislation might support programs to get more fruits and vegetables into schools. I hope the government puts children's health above industry interests and reforms the Child Nutrition Act to help all schools offer more fruits, vegetables, and vegetarian meal options.

We need to remind lawmakers that improving child nutrition would greatly improve both the physical and fiscal health of our nation.

Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D., is a staff nutritionist with the nonprofit group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.
Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.

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