06/10/2011 02:53 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2011

Food Foolery

Legislators who focus more on the expense of saving lives than the lives themselves are susceptible to the ignominious charge of "knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing."

This accusation of cold-blooded insensitivity would seem to apply to the Republican members of Congress who cite added costs as reason for their attempt to block healthier national nutritional standards for school lunches. They are opposing the dietary initiative that the Obama Administration has promulgated as a major (and proven) weapon in the war against the national health scourge of widespread childhood obesity.

Even attributing price consciousness to these Republican lawmakers is giving them more credit than is their due. The truth is that they seem ignorant as well of the heavy monetary costs that would result were improved nutrition standards to be foiled. Their complaint that we cannot afford to spend an additional $7 billion over five years to upgrade school lunch menus by requiring more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy is a classic case of "penny-wise, pound-foolish."

More than one-third of the youngsters in the United States are overweight or obese, and diet plays a major role in their sorry condition. Of great concern is that this corpulence has definitively been linked to the youthful onset of diabetes and hypertension, and to strokes and heart attacks in middle age.

According to a thorough review of existing economic analyses, the additional cost of improved school lunch nutrition is chump change compared to the medical bills the nation would foot if childhood obesity continues unabated. The excess annual direct cost of childhood obesity in the United States is already estimated at $14.3 billion, and does not include the substantial related medical expenses that will likely be experienced later in life. Indeed, researchers estimate that severe obesity in youth doubles the lifetime medical costs for such major diseases as diabetes and stroke. It should thus come as no surprise that the current population of overweight adolescents is projected to incur nearly $45 billion in excess direct medical expenses between 2020 and 2050 if the status quo persists.

Nor does this sum take into account the economic losses from absenteeism, loss in worker productivity, and disability traced to childhood obesity.

It should be noted that the proposed government dietary regulations would apply only to school lunches. Kids would be free to splurge on junk food after classes, although the hope is that their school lunch exposure would lead them to develop a preference for healthier nutritional options.

Most congressional Republicans consider the new school lunch standards a symptom of a spendthrift "Nanny State." They've got it wrong. The standards are indicative of a cost-effective humanitarian state.

Edward Flattau's fourth book, 'Green Morality,' is now available.