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Congress will be debating the reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in the coming weeks, so this year’s National Childhood Obesity Awareness month couldn’t be better timed.

I am thankful to the school districts across Nebraska for doing their part to combat childhood obesity, which is a major contributor to our state’s No. 1 killer: cardiovascular disease. By committing to meet the nutrition standards under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, our schools are helping fight childhood obesity and fueling kids to perform better in school. This is not to say that improving school lunches alone will defeat the childhood obesity epidemic, but certainly it is a step in the right direction.

Given that many children get 50 percent or more of their calories at school, making sure these foods are healthy is critical to their health and well-being both now and in the future. That’s why I was excited that for the first time in a generation, the nutrition standards for foods served in schools were updated in 2010 to reflect the latest nutrition science. These standards for healthier school meals were based on recommendations from physicians and school nutrition experts and included recommendations that kids eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less salt, sugar and fat.

Now, you might argue that the government should not tell our kids what they can and cannot eat, but in the case of school lunches, their food options are being selected for them regardless, so why not give them healthy options? And when our tax dollars are being used to subsidize the cost of school food, wouldn’t we rather see that money spent on food that will enhance our children’s health rather than contribute to more costly disease?

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I am not saying that the new recommendations are perfect or do not have some room for improvement, but I would hope any future changes to the standards would be made to reflect current and honest nutritional science and not be based on politics or Big Industry gains.

I also understand serving healthy food has had its challenges in the schools, however, the majority of schools support the new standards. A recent survey by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project found that 70 percent of food service staff and school administrators at the elementary and middle school levels say that kids like the healthier meals. And as time goes on and kids’ and schools continue to adjust, this number should only increase. Right now, 100 percent of participating schools in Nebraska are successfully meeting these requirements. Nebraska should be proud of this accomplishment and this tremendous work should be celebrated, especially during this month. On a personal and practical level, if I do not have time to prepare lunch for my first-grader, I'm thankful I can count on the school to prepare a healthy balanced meal.

During the reauthorization debate, I encourage Congress to protect the progress already made and to remember that this is ultimately about the health of our children.

Laura Sypal of Lincoln is a volunteer advocate for the American Heart Association.


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