04/28/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Teaching the ABC's of Nutrition in Schools Across America

Last month the FDA introduced a plan for a food label makeover. Under the new regulations, food labels will provide a greater emphasis on calorie counts and sugar. The plan has once again brought nutrition to the forefront of the health conversation. We need to continue this essential discussion and work toward raising awareness on the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is especially imperative for K-12 students across the nation, many of whom lack the ability to make good nutritional choices. In fact, only half students from kindergarten through eighth grade reside in school districts that require students to receive nutrition education.

Our children's health is in a state of crisis. The Journal of American Medical Association reports that the prevalence of obesity has more than tripled since 1980. Today, 32 percent of children are either overweight or obese. This amounts to about 17.6 million overweight youth in this country right now. We need to do more to reverse this trend.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that most children don't meet most of their daily nutritional requirements for whole grains, fruits, or vegetables. To make matters worse, most youth consume well over the daily sodium limit, and added sugars and solid fats make up 40 percent of the average child's allotted calories. Poor nutritional habits lead to dire consequences later in life. Unhealthy eating habits cause major health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, and can also lead to food insecurity, disrupted eating patterns, and low self-esteem.

Nutrition isn't the only problem; our children also aren't getting enough exercise. To further compound the problem, about 32 percent of students watch television or play computer games for more than three hours a day. Only 14 percent of high school students can report getting more than 60 minutes of physical activity during the day.

A balanced diet and physical activity are vital to academic performance. A healthy diet has a direct link to increased cognitive function and memory skills, decreased absenteeism from school, and improved mood. These advantages can help students stay focused and complete their coursework.

In 2010 Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act reauthorizing child nutrition programs and updating nutritional standards for school foods. We must support those improvements by promoting nutrition education. That's why we support H.R. 1500, the School Nutrition Education Act.

The School Nutrition Education Act will:

  • Require schools that participate in school lunch and breakfast programs to provide each student with 50 hours of nutrition education every year;
  • Hold the implemented nutrition instruction to high standards, consistent with the nutritional policies of school care programs;
  • Recommend nutrition education go beyond health education classes by incorporating the subject in curriculums of math, science, language arts, and social sciences classes;
  • Promote participatory activities, including contests, promotions, field trips, and assemblies to further increase awareness about healthy eating.
Education can help all Americans live longer, healthier lives. Teaching students to make healthy decisions can improve habits now, and instill healthy eating habits for a lifetime. Overhauling our food labels, encouraging exercise, increasing the availability of healthy food in our schools, and incorporating nutrition education into curriculums are all important steps forward to reduce childhood obesity. We urge everyone, of all ages, to take advantage of nutrition resources available and take control of their health both for themselves and for their families.

Congressman Matt Cartwright represents Pennsylvania's 17th Congressional District, which includes Schuylkill County and portions of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton and Carbon Counties. Cartwright serves on the Natural Resources and Government Reform and Oversight House Committees.

Dr. Margo Wootan is the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), one of the country's leading health advocacy organizations that specializes in food, nutrition, and obesity prevention. Dr. Wootan received her B.S. in nutrition from Cornell University and her doctorate in nutrition from Harvard University's School of Public Health.