11/22/2012 09:03 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2013

Talking Turkey on Junk Food in Schools

Whatever your cultural or ethnic background, conversations inevitably turn to food this time of year. Do you celebrate Thanksgiving or just "get together"? Do you eat meat and is it free-range? Are the vegetables organic? What is a healthy dessert? Gluten free? What about sugar? And then there is the ever-present concern, how will we all keep off those extra holiday pounds? Getting family members together with different practices, politics and palates for one big meal can be complicated and controversial.

Lots of thought and effort go into the meals we serve at home and on holidays. And, there is an equally serious and intense conversation happening right now about the profound impact that school foods have on the health of our children. More than 23 million children and adolescents -- nearly one in three -- are obese or overweight and with one in five U.S. children living in households that experience food insecurity, having nutritious meals in school is critically important. Equally important is making sure that national nutrition standards are set for snack foods and drinks sold outside of the meals.

Many schools now sell snacks and drinks in lots of places beyond the lunch line. In fact, three out of five elementary school students have access to vending machines, stores, à la carte lines, or other venues that sell drinks outside of meals, and nearly half can buy snack foods at school. Unfettered access to chips, sodas, and cookies means it's easy for students to buy junk foods instead of the healthier lunch.

Unhealthy snacks and drinks in school are one of the many factors contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States. Obesity rates have more than quadrupled in children and more than tripled in adolescents over the last four decades, leading to high rates of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is preparing to propose updated national nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold through vending machines, a la carte lines and school stores. For moms across the country, this change can't come soon enough!

As parents, we all want our kids to eat healthful, but the reality is that parents can't really monitor what their kids eat and drink while they're at school. Having strong nutrition standards for snacks and drinks in schools will assure parents that schools support the healthy choices they make at home.

Indeed, states that have already implemented strong standards are seeing a positive impact on kids' health. A few years ago, the California state legislature put in place some of the strongest guidelines in the country for snack foods and drinks sold in schools. A recent study shows that, following the policy change, students in the state consumed an average of 158 fewer calories per day than students in states without strong standards.

This makes sense. Children spend a significant part of their day in school and can consume up to half of their total daily calories there. Nutrition standards, for school meals and for snacks, are a huge step in the right direction.

Hunger and obesity have serious health implications for children. The good news is that we're already beginning to see progress. USDA has updated nutrition standards for the School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs. Since September, kids are being offered more whole grains, fruits and vegetables in their school cafeterias. Also, portion sizes are based on age groups in elementary, middle and high school. These new meals are designed to address hunger and obesity.

But without nutrition standards for snacks and drinks, many students are still surrounded by junk food. That's why parents across the country broadly support the creation of strong guidelines for snack foods and beverages. It's also why the USDA must quickly issue the proposed national nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in school vending machines, à la carte lines and stores.

Moms and dads know that when families gather for holiday meals, it's important that those meals be healthful. We must also ensure that children and teens get healthy foods and beverages in school every day. The health and well being of our future depends on it.