With the federal deficit under close scrutiny over the past year, measures to save taxpayer dollars have become a focus of the national debate. In a move to cut costs, a spending bill proposed by Congress last week seeks to block the Obama administration’s attempt to alter the standards for food served in schools. But blocking the changes, which propose to limit the amount of starchy vegetables and tomato paste served in school lunches, will not save money for the government, and the action sets a troubling precedent for public health. Lawmakers need to realize that promoting healthy school lunches is beneficial socially and economically, and they should make efforts to pass legislation that fosters public health.

The sponsors of the bill claim that implementing the Obama administration’s proposed changes would cost nearly $7 billion and place an unnecessary burden on schools. However, this figure refers to the cost of the administration’s entire plan to improve nutritious foods served in public school cafeterias. The program would double the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables that in some cases are absent from many schools’ menus.

Even if the changes cost $7 billion, federal lawmakers are failing to consider the costs — in terms of health care and quality of life — of the rising obesity rate in the United States. Today, 17 percent of children between ages 2 and 19 are considered obese — a number that has tripled in the last 30 years. Health economists have long been warning about the relationship between obesity and rising health care costs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that health care expenses related to obesity total $147 billion each year. These costs will only increase unless the rising obesity rate is curtailed.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has taken steps to address Michigan’s high obesity rate, which has risen to 30.9 percent, according to figures the CDC released in 2010. In September, Snyder asked doctors to add BMI measurements of those under 18 to the state registry. The federal government should support Snyder’s efforts and work to strengthen them. Preventing childhood obesity would save the nation billions of dollars, but more importantly, improve millions of lives.

The American Public Health Association — among a variety of other well-respected public health institutions — considers obesity to be among the most prominent health threats facing Americans. Many of the ailments associated with obesity can be diminished through programs emphasizing nutritious meals and an appropriate amount of exercise.

The health of the country’s youth should not be sacrificed for any budgetary issue. Rather than listening to lobbyists, the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that health and nutrition experts are the people guiding the decisions about what food is served in schools.

The current standards for public school lunches allow tomato paste to be classified as a serving of vegetables. Such standards are simply unacceptable, and it’s time for lawmakers to begin taking public health seriously. The Obama administration’s attempts to curb the availability of unhealthy foods in school lunches should be implemented in order to help combat obesity among American children.

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