By Sen. John Kerry
Each year, millions of Americans make New Year's Resolutions -- to eat healthier, exercise more and pay better attention to our overall health and well-being. But what about our kids? With the holidays over and children back at school, what resolutions are we making for their long-term health and safety? A good place to start is the school cafeteria.
We've all seen the headlines -- pizza as a vegetable, higher demand for school lunches in a tough economy, and childhood obesity rates on the rise. At the same time, a recent study showed that kids who regularly eat school lunches are 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who bring lunches from home.
With more than 11 percent of our families falling in the "food insecure" category, many kids don't have access to the food and nutrition they need every day. The numbers are staggering and they all add up to one thing: a life-threatening problem. And we've got to work together now to fix the problem before it is too late.
Parents here in Andover know firsthand the difference a healthy, balanced lunch can make in their child's development. Over the past five years, food services director Gail Koutroubas has led a revolution in her cafeterias, swapping candy bars for smoothie bars and trading greasy, processed meals for fresh vegetables and whole grains. Gone are powdered potatoes and salty, packaged spices, replaced with real red potatoes and fresh herbs from the school's garden. Even the school vending machines have had a healthy makeover -- sugary snacks have been replaced with healthy alternatives that provide the balanced nutrition students need to focus, compete, and succeed day in and day out in the classroom.
Andover's successes can be a model for the whole country. We took a big step towards that goal with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which I was proud to co-sponsor and watch President Obama sign into law in December 2010. This law attacks the problem in school cafeterias head on by establishing nutritional standards for school meals and ensuring that more children from all income levels adopt the kind of early, healthful eating habits and lifestyles that will help them live longer, more productive lives.
Right before the holidays, I supported legislation to fund essential nutrition programs for school lunches, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
While the law will continue efforts to increase fruits and vegetables and reduce the overall fat content on school lunch plates, it also includes some alarming provisions pushed by House Republicans that could slow the progress we've made toward lowering the allowable amount of starch and sodium schools are allowed to serve. Their provisions could stall reductions in salt and increases in whole grains and make it much harder to count when pizza actually contains a serving of vegetables. These proposals would roll us back to the Reagan era aims to count ketchup and relish as a serving of vegetables. It's time for us to move forward, not back.
Soon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will make a final ruling implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It's a big opportunity, and I urge the USDA to exercise its full authority to improve the nutritional quality of school meals, increase fruits and vegetables, and reduce overall fat content. For a lot of kids in our communities, these meals are their main source of food for the day, and we owe it to them to get it right.
Parents, teachers, students, school administrators, and community advocates are working every day, even in the face of slashed budgets, to improve our schools' meals and to provide the best for our kids. This year, we've got to promise ourselves to do even more to support those extraordinary efforts. It's one New Year's Resolution we should all keep.