07/07/2010 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We Need Bold Action on Childhood Obesity

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher sounded the alarm bell a decade ago: childhood obesity was spreading through our nation like an epidemic, jeopardizing the health of our children and threatening to bankrupt our health care system. These and other warnings have raised public consciousness, but our elected leaders have not yet made the changes needed to reverse the obesity epidemic once and for all. It's time for that to change.

A report released last week by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows how far we have to go. According to the report, F as in Fat: How the Obesity Crisis Threatens America's Future, adult obesity rates rose in 28 states over the past year and declined only in the District of Columbia. Nationally, nearly one-third of children are obese or overweight, placing them at higher risk for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and a host of other serious chronic illnesses. Put simply, we are losing the fight to keep our children healthy.

The overall trend isn't a surprise to anyone who's tracked the progress of the obesity epidemic. Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past few decades, and they've continued to rise since Dr. Satcher issued his landmark call to action a decade ago.

Fortunately, F as in Fat provides some cause for encouragement -- the results of a nationwide poll asking 1,200 registered voters about their views on the obesity epidemic. As it turns out, Americans are way ahead of their elected officials. They're demanding action now; our leaders in Washington should listen.

According to the survey, an overwhelming majority (84%) of Americans believes the childhood obesity epidemic is a serious problem -- Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Tea Party supporters agree. A strong majority (56%) believes we should launch a comprehensive national program to prevent childhood obesity, even if we have to invest billions of dollars now to prevent hundreds of billions in costs later. And voters agree the problem is so urgent, we dare not wait. Asked if we should put obesity prevention on the back burner until the economy improves, Americans overwhelmingly said no, we must act now.

Opportunities abound for Congress to take the kind of bold action the American people are demanding. Strengthening the National School Lunch Program, which is scheduled to expire this fall, would be an ideal first step. The School Lunch program provides more than 30 million meals each day to children, and it helps young people establish food preferences that last into adulthood. Congress should require that all foods served and sold in schools meet or exceed the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

This simple change will get schools permanently out of the junk food business and close the loophole that currently allows french fries, sugary drinks, candy, and other foods void of nutritional value to be sold on school grounds.

Closing the junk food loophole won't cost taxpayers a dime, although other healthy changes will require an upfront investment. For example, Congress ought to increase the reimbursement rate provided to schools for meals served under the School Lunch Program -- currently $2.68 per lunch. After paying labor, energy, and other overhead costs, many schools are left with less than $1 per meal to spend on ingredients. Schools can't possibly afford quality food at that price, so most rely on cheap over-processed, high-sodium, high-fat products.

Investments like these will improve the health of our children and pay for themselves many times over in reduced health care costs, improved academic achievement and increased productivity into adulthood. But even if it didn't pay off financially, I'd argue strenuously that better health for our kids is all the return on investment we need.

Many in Congress are already pushing hard for these and other healthy changes to the School Lunch Program. They're fighting for our kids, but they're also fighting against the clock, working to complete action on reform before Congress adjourns for the year. The American people are on their side. We can only hope their colleagues join them.

James S. Marks, M.D., M.P.H., is senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As director of the Foundation's health group, he helps guide programs to prevent childhood obesity, promote public health and eliminate health disparities.