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Angela Glover Blackwell Headshot

Obstructionism's Latest Victim? School Lunch!

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This op-ed first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Friday, July 30, 2010.

With the economy still in flux, money is tight for families across Western Pennsylvania and around the country. More kids are going to bed hungry or having to get by on cheaper, less healthy food.

But even as more children are relying on school (and summer) lunch programs as a primary source of food, Congress is playing politics with our children's health. The Child Nutrition Act -- which funds all school meals -- is caught in legislative limbo.

The new bill would improve nutrition guidelines, help more students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches and give local farmers a boost by connecting them with school lunch programs. But with the current law set to expire at the end of September, Congress still refuses to tackle the new legislation, despite strong bipartisan support.

With all those vital provisions, why is the bill stalled? It comes down to money and time.

The new child-nutrition bill would provide a much-needed boost to school lunch programs -- the first real-dollar reimbursement increase in more than three decades. The increase would be about six cents per lunch, but opponents say we cannot afford that price to improve our children's health.

And while there are many worthy crises on Congress' plate right now, its schedule will be even more packed as November elections approach. Our lawmakers must act before their August recess to ensure all kids can go back to school with a healthy, secure school lunch program.

The health consequences of not acting are dramatic. Just last month, the "F as in Fat 2010" report -- the Trust for America's Health's annual study of obesity rates in America -- showed that 15 percent of all Pennsylvania children are obese. That's obese -- not just overweight.

The childhood obesity crisis has hit poor children and children of color the hardest. Family income is closely linked to obesity rates. For instance, adults who make less than $15,000 a year have a national obesity rate of 35 percent. For adults who make more than $50,000, that rate drops to 25 percent -- still unacceptable, but lower. You see similar disparities in children.

The workforce of tomorrow is growing up less healthy -- this may be the first generation to have shorter life expectancies than their parents. And the consequences aren't just personal. Earlier this year, more than 130 retired generals and admirals issued a stunning report showing that more than a quarter of all young adults are unable to meet basic military fitness requirements -- or, in their words, are "too fat to fight."

Yet political squabbling is getting in the way of implementing pragmatic, proven approaches to improve the health of the 30 million children nationwide who rely on school lunches -- particularly children in urban school districts like Pittsburgh's, where a high proportion of children depend on free or reduced-cost meals.

There is broad support for this bill inside and outside of Congress, but not the dedication to get it across the finish line.

There may, however, be some flickers of hope. Two weeks ago, Pennsylvania Democratic Reps. Joe Sestak and Jason Altmire and Republican Todd Platts were among a bipartisan coalition to pass a version of this bill out of a critical House committee. Those representatives, along with Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey, have the ears of congressional leaders and should be pushing for this bill to come to a vote before Congress breaks for August recess.

Tens of millions of students should not have to start the school year wondering whether their leaders will make the long-overdue commitment to improve their lunches. It is past time to bring this bill to a vote.

Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy institute promoting economic and social equity, and is advisory board chair of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity.