GOP is Wrong: (Fat-) Free Lunch Would Save Money

GOP is Wrong: (Fat-) Free Lunch Would Save Money

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Washington is so prone to knee-jerk reactions it’s a wonder the entire city doesn’t walk with a limp. Case in point: the GOP’s efforts to derail proposed improvements in the nation’s school lunch program. The House Appropriations Committee warned that changes requiring schools to include more fresh fruits and vegetables in kids’ diets – and less fat -- would be too expensive. The folks on that committee should be required to watch Jamie Oliver’s eye-opening “Food Revolution” series filmed in Huntington, West Va., statistically the most obese city in the country.

Let’s start with this data point: children in the school visited by Chef Oliver are not issued utensils. Their diet consists entirely of finger food. Breakfast is doughy pizza and lunch is chicken nuggets made with some noxious brew of undesirable chicken parts and questionable filler materials. When Oliver visits a classroom carrying a basket full of fruits and vegetables, not one first grader can identify a tomato, or a cucumber. They’ve never seen such thing – not at home or in the school dining hall.

Huntington may be an extreme example, but for those of us who cannot imagine a meal without salad, the show revealed an awful truth: many Americans have no idea what they should eat.

Republicans who protest that the proposed changes from the Agriculture Department – the first in fifteen years -- cost too much are totally wrong. In a recent letter to friends and supporters, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, now vice chairman of the Partnership for a Healthier America, urges  private sector help in combating childhood obesity. There are “more than four million toddlers already queued up for health issues that will last them a lifetime,” he writes. Frist says more than 20 percent of preschool children are overweight or obese; kids who start out with excess body fat have a much higher risk of obesity later on.

This is an economic blight on the nation. We spend nearly $150 billion per year in this country treating obesity-related problems such as diabetes and heart disease. As Frist points out, it is also a national security issue: “more than 25 percent of all Americans ages 17-24 are unqualified for military service because they are too heavy.”

As the country focuses on spiraling medical costs, we should be doing everything under the sun to stem our obesity crisis. This has nothing to do with being a “nanny” state – it has everything to do with fiscal prudence. One of the great shortcomings of the healthcare bill pushed through by President Obama and his Democrat colleagues is that it provides little incentive for people to adopt healthier habits. Why struggle against a debilitating yen for Krispy Kremes or Carvel soft-serve if someone else pays your medical bills?

Frist lauds those in the private sector – including some of the country’s largest retailers – who have pledged to cut down on the caloric input of their food offerings. He is right to do so. He urges parents to get their children more physically active – in our video game and TV-driven culture that is surely a challenge, but a worthy one, too.

Most important, though, is to make Americans aware of what constitutes healthy eating. It is easier to influence the future eating habits of children than it is to change the ways of a Big Mac-dependant adult. A recent Indiana School of Medicine study showed that programs modifying the diet of kids aged 2 to 5 can be more effective than such efforts with older children. This argues for better educating the country’s parents. But authorities get their best crack at kids eating at school. Jamie Oliver’s film helped lift the veil on the role schools play in furthering our national appetite for junk food. The Obama administration efforts to change that should be supported by everyone.

After more than two decades on Wall Street as a top-ranked research analyst, Liz Peek became a columnist and political analyst. Aside from The Fiscal Times, she writes for, The New York Sun and Women on the Web.