Help Michelle Obama fight childhood obesity

The hypocrisy of U.S. House Republicans is astounding. They say they want to reduce health care costs in America, but they are mounting an attack on healthy school lunches on behalf of large junk food producers that effectively encourages childhood obesity. The U.S. spends an estimated $160 to $190 million annually to treat obesity-related conditions.

First Lady Michelle Obama pressed Congress to reduce salt, sugar and fat in taxpayer-subsidized school lunches, and the result was a new set of school lunch nutrition standards passed by Congress in 2010. Sugary sodas and junk foods are out, fruits and vegetables are in.

Republicans argue that school children aren’t eating their new healthy lunches and that schools find the new standards too costly and restrictive. They accuse the First Lady of running a “nanny state” by dictating what kids eat.

But dictating what children eat is what responsible adults do, because that’s how healthy eating habits are formed.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says 90 percent of the nation’s schools have successfully implemented the new nutritional standards, including replacing junk food in vending machines with healthier options.

For the one-in-five American children at risk of hunger, whose parents struggle financially to provide healthy foods, school lunches may be the most nutritious meal available to them each day.

And when taxpayers are footing the bill, schools have a responsibility to steer children toward healthy foods. Obese children become obese adults, pushing the cost of treating the resulting health issues even higher.

Earlier this year, new survey data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that obesity rates had fallen between 2003 and 2012 for preschool children, ages two to five. But older children and adults continued to get fatter at a double-digit pace.

CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden credited efforts by child care centers to cut down on sugary soft drinks, improve nutrition and boost physical activity. He supports the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” program and school nutrition efforts.

Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan public health advocacy group, says “The best strategy to lower obesity rates (in adults) is to help our children establish healthier habits while they are young, including good nutrition and increased activity. By limiting the marketing of junk food in schools, we can help even out that equation.”

Congress already revised the school standards once in 2011 – for example, making the tomato sauce of a slice of pizza count as a serving of vegetables. This latest attempt to delay implementation beyond its 12-year phase-in period only benefits the junk food industry.

So, let’s not kid ourselves that this latest Republican attack has anything to do with kids. This is about the junk food industry trying to salvage the billions of dollars in corporate profit it makes from pushing salt, sugar and fat to innocent young children, regardless of the harmful consequences.

The First Lady rightly came out swinging to defend the new standards. Everyone who cares about our children’s health and rising health care costs related to obesity should support her.