THE BLOG

Fed Up: A Back to School Plan for Healthier Lunches

10/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While Washington continues to debate the need for a health care overhaul, a related challenge gets far too little attention. Over the past 40 years, child obesity has increased dramatically - rising by 150% among 2 to 5 year olds, 400% among children 6 to 11 years old and more than 300% among young adults age 12 to 19. Now, nearly 17% of all children are obese.

This is much more than an individual or family problem. It's a pressing national crisis. Obesity puts our children at risk of developing serious diseases -- such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression. It keeps our children from performing their best at school. Studies show that being overweight or obese can have a negative impact on math and reading scores -- and keeps students out of school for more sick days.

We've watched the trends for long enough and it is time for action.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, New York has a voice on the Senate Agriculture and Nutrition Committee, and I am committed to use this position to improve child nutrition and combat child obesity. But I can't do it alone. I am working hand-in-hand with grassroots advocates and leaders in local government such as Christine Quinn, the Speaker of the New York City Council, who has been a champion of many initiatives to help provide New York City's children with a healthier future.

Recently, I released a report that showed here at home, 55% of New York City adults are obese or overweight -- a trend that is only getting worse.

I know how hard it can be for parents to prepare healthy meals every day for their children. But the fact is that if the federal government doesn't take immediate steps to update nutritional standards and change the status quo where the meals with the lowest price tag also have the lowest nutritional value and the highest number of calories, our children and our future will suffer.

The government can take smart steps to give all kids the healthy start they need to reach their full potential.

First, we need to ban artery-clogging trans-fats in schools -- and I've proposed legislation that would do exactly that. New York City has been at the forefront of this issue, banning trans fat in restaurants and in schools. We need to set the rest of the state and country toward that same path.

Second, we need to get junk food out of New York City schools. Despite strong action by Chancellor Joel Klein, too many school vending machines are still loaded with candy, chips and soda. Giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture more authority to set national nutritional standards for all food served in public schools, including vending machines, can change that.

Third, we need to help schools afford healthier meals. The current reimbursement rates schools receive do not keep pace with the rate of inflation. We should increase reimbursement rates by 70 cents -- from $2.57 per meal to $3.27 per meal. With limited resources, New York City has taken a leadership role and done an excellent job in providing its school children with more nutritious food. But, in too many places across the country, a typical school lunch for a child may have chicken nuggets, chips, canned peas and a canned fruit cocktail. With more federal funding, schools could afford grilled chicken breast on a seven-grain roll, steamed broccoli, and a fresh fruit cup.

Over and above this funding increase, we should provide targeted federal relief to high-cost areas like New York City. In the coming weeks, I will introduce legislation that will index income eligibility for school lunches to match the high cost of rent in various regions. A family of four making $40,000 per year in New York City should have access to free and nutritious lunches for their children and the federal government should help pay for it.

Finally, the federal government ought to invest in community-based health centers and organizations that offer more athletic programs and physical activities for children.

Our parents, schools and communities throughout New York City deserve the resources that provide for healthier foods and more opportunities to get kids moving to make sure they have every chance for success.