03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Let Our Children Lead the Way to a Healthier Future

As Congress debates health care reform, this much is certain: We'll
never control health care costs until we halt the nationwide epidemic
of overeating, lack of exercise, and obesity. America's children -- 17%
of whom are already obese and facing a lifetime of medical trouble -- are
the ones to lead the way. We can start by creating an innovative new
elementary school program in which children learn about their own
bodies' physical and nutritional needs, and the "living skills" needed
to ensure a healthful new lifestyle.

Nearly one in three youngsters in the US, from age 2 to 19, is
overweight, and approximately 17% are dangerously obese. Twenty-five
percent of children, aged 5 to 10, have relatively high cholesterol
levels, high blood pressure, and other warning signs of future health

If children learn the skills of healthy living, they will lead their
parents to healthier habits as well. Look at some of the great health
and environmental movements of the past half century: When children
caught the anti-litter bug in the '50s and '60s, they lectured their
parents every time a soda can went out the car window. Anti-smoking
campaigns in the '60s and '70s succeeded when an entire generation -- the
Baby Boomers -- begged their elders to stop. More recently, recycling has
become a way of life because children embraced the notion of a more
sustainable world.

How can we best energize and empower a new generation of children to
lead the way to living a healthier life? Having planted the first
White House vegetable garden since World War II, and agreed to appear
in the opening episode of Sesame Street's 40th season on November 10,
teaching puppets (and people!) to eat fresh fruits and veggies,
Michele Obama has the right idea. The First Lady's starring role
reflects the priority the Obama Administration places on inspiring and
entertaining children with fun activities--gardening, for example--and
through the great power of television.

Now it's time to take the next step: a new national initiative in
grade schools -- the Living Skills Semester -- with a curriculum designed
specifically to prevent obesity by addressing knowledge and
understanding of the human body, nutrition, fitness, and all that is
required for a long, healthy, and happy life.

Most schools now devote less than half an hour for lunch. Lunches,
healthy or not, must be gulped. Obviously, a longer lunch hour is a
healthier lunch hour. However, despite the success of school lunch
pioneers like Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard initiative,

Slow Food USA's Time for Lunch campaign, and many more healthful farm-to-table programs, many students still recharge their energy with salty, fatty snacks (chicken nuggets and pizza, anyone?) and sugared drinks from vending machines in schools.

We need to take our kids off the path that leads to high blood
pressure, diabetes, heart disease and other obesity-related ailments.
Congress should enact bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators
Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to modernize decades-old
nutrition standards in the schools by covering not only student
cafeteria meals but also the foods and beverages in the schools'
vending machines. Schools should also be required to offer physical
education to every student every day.

But even more far-reaching change is needed if we are to win this
battle. What if fifth-grade American children receive an entire
semester in which all classes in math, science, geography, language,
history and the environment integrated existing fifth-grade
educational requirements with studies of how the body functions; its
nutritional and physical needs, and proper sources and preparation of
healthy, fresh, nutritious foods?

This initiative isn't unprecedented. The US Department of
Agriculture--the federal agency that safeguards and oversees the
production of our food--already does significant research and education
work through the nation's land-grant universities and colleges. But
these efforts are chronically under-funded, receiving only about $1
billion a year compared to more than $750 billion in federal
healthcare spending.

Still, their proven programs can serve as models. At Rutgers in New
Jersey, HealthBarn USA offers children the opportunity to work on a
farm and learn about nutrition by growing, harvesting, and cooking
fresh seasonal food. The University of Massachusetts has developed
Strength and Power in Nutrition (SPIN), a program that has been
tailored to, and tested, with low-income, culturally diverse
adolescents. Similarly, the Louisiana State University Agriculture
conducts a traveling exhibit called Body Walk that has taken
the message of healthy eating and frequent exercise to more than
125,000 children in more than 250 schools.

What if we don't let our children lead the way to their -- and
our -- healthier lives? Then, as current trends continue, an appalling
86% of Americans could be overweight within two decades.
Obesity-related medical bills will amount to almost $1 trillion. The
solution is prevention via education, and it must start now.