12/05/2011 01:25 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2012

A Real Choice for Parents on Their Kids' Health

At a time when 21 million students across the U.S. are receiving free or low-cost school lunches, Congress has voted to block new guidelines that would have limited the use of potatoes and sodium in the National School Lunch Program. These guidelines haven't seen an update in the last 15 years. Among other arguments against the update, conservatives argued that the government should not get involved with telling children what to eat. This is a common but flawed criticism of public health efforts to combat childhood obesity, whether through increased taxes on sugary drinks (the dreaded "soda tax"), providing healthier options in the school lunch line, or encouraging physical activity.

While discussing the First Lady's "Let's Move" campaign, Sarah Palin made the typical conservative argument: "[Mrs. Obama] is telling us that she cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own families and what they should eat, instead of a government taking over and making decisions for us." Yet nothing in the First Lady's program interrupts a parent's right to do what they think is best for their child. Instead, Let's Move would increase support in communities for parents who want their children to eat right and exercise, adding healthier options in schools where parents aren't constantly around to monitor their children.

The Let's Move campaign is a totally voluntary effort to get kids eating healthy and exercising more. In a political climate where this campaign has instantly triggered so much conservative wrath, how can those in the public health community hope to achieve any real change toward improving a serious national health problem?

Over one third of American children are overweight or obese. Children who are obese are up to 80% more likely to stay overweight or obese as adults. Their chances of developing serious health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cancer are also increased. These health consequences of childhood obesity translate to severe financial consequences as well--the long-term cost of obesity is about $147 billion, or 10% of our national healthcare budget.

We literally can't afford to ignore our obesity problem. What makes the situation more complicated is that many families can't afford the healthy fruits, vegetables and whole grains that science demonstrates are vital to fighting obesity. Even if they can, their children are surrounded by unhealthy options all day at school or child care centers.

The real enemy of a parent's right to choose what their children eat is the scarcity of healthy food options in many American schools and neighborhoods--not government public health interventions. Policies that introduce affordable, healthy food options are better for families and create real freedom of choice.

Students consume between 19-50% of their total calorie intake at school, making these meals one of the most important opportunities in the battle against obesity. This is particularly true for minorities and low-income students, who are disproportionately affected by poor diet and obesity. The 2006 School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHIPPS) conducted by the CDC found that 33% of elementary schools, 71% of middle schools, and 89% of high schools had a vending machine or snack bar where students were mostly purchasing sports drinks, sodas, fruit juices, and higher-fat, salty snacks, but less than half the schools offered plain water in their vending machines. Many more studies have shown that where more snacks and drinks are sold in schools, students consume more total calories, soft drinks, total fat and saturated fat, and lower intakes of fruits, vegetables, and key nutrients.

Given this context, many of our schools are not really providing parents and students with an opportunity to choose healthy food. To combat the poor selection of nutritious food options in schools, Mrs. Obama's Let's Move campaign has encouraged meeting the USDA's more rigorous nutrition guidelines, working with local chefs to teach basic cooking skills to students, and making commitments to reach the science-based nutrition standards outlined by the Institute of Medicine.

The program is innovative and emphasizes the fun and creativity in nutrition. Promoting cooking classes provides students with the skills needed to create their own meals that are healthy and built around their own tastes. This type of personal choice is much more meaningful than choosing between brands of potato chips. Encouraging school gardens teaches students to grow their own selection of vegetables and fruit, and imparts the value of natural food. School gardens provide options built around students' personal preferences for certain fruits and vegetables, rather than the selection of questionable produce at the local corner store.

Yet conservatives have already responded to this entirely voluntary program with hysterical resistance. Their supposed passion for individual choice reveals the hypocrisy of their criticism, and the problem of obesity is too important and costly to be sidetracked by political pretension. The Let's Move campaign and similar public nutrition initiatives don't take away anyone's individual choice--they expand options for everyone. Empowering students and parents to take their nutrition into their own hands is a solution that should be applauded, not shunned.