Spend more on childhood nutrition today, pay less later


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There is no more primal instinct than the one that drives parents to care for their children. The extraordinary lengths parents will go when the well-being of their children is at risk can be awe-inspiring (and sometimes a little annoying).

So it is not surprising that area parents voiced extreme dissatisfaction upon the revelation that some area elementary schools allocated just 15 minutes for lunch. Opponents argue that short lunch periods lead to unhealthy eating habits.

Though this might be a worthwhile debate for the future, if parents are genuinely concerned with the nutritional well-being of their children, they should focus on the quality of the food their children eat more than how much time they have to eat it. Childhood obesity rates in the United States are alarming, and the country will be certain to pay for it with the world's only two certainties: death and taxes.

Given the projected health-care costs associated with Type 2 diabetes, federal and state governments should look into investing in higher-quality food supplied to and from the National School Lunch Program.

As The Daily Iowan reported Monday, 21 percent of low-income children in Iowa risk malnutrition. This is especially important when you consider these children are overwhelmingly likely to rely on school-sponsored lunches as a source of nutrition. Moreover, it is important to distinguish between the caloric and the nutritional substance of food. Even though the poor are disproportionately at risk of malnutrition, they are 70 percent more likely to be obese.

This would lead one to believe that school lunches are associated with higher rates of obesity. Several studies over the past decade confirm this suspicion. A 2003 study sponsored by the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that while school-sponsored lunches were associated with higher vitamin and mineral levels, they were also associated with higher fat and saturated fat intake. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Human Resources concluded that National School Lunch Program participants were more likely to be obese than nonparticipants.

A 2009 investigation conducted by USA Today found food standards for many fast-food restaurants, including McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC, to be higher than those of the lunch program. A different USA Today article reported that the government spent more than $145 million on spent-hen meat for schools over the last decade. Campbell's stopped using spent-hen carcasses in its soups well more than a decade ago because of "quality considerations."

As of the last year data were available, nearly 32 percent of America's youth were either overweight or obese, of whom more than half were obese — in 1980, only 5 percent of American children were obese.

In Iowa, that number is 26.5 percent. No Iowan should take pride or solace in that fact. While the obesity rate in Iowa is comparatively low, no one should find comfort in the fact that 26.5 percent of children in the state have become more likely to develop Type II Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and numerous forms of cancer. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of obese children exhibit at least one high-risk factor for heart disease.

Moreover, the costs of obesity are not solely borne by any one individual. Obesity has very real and measurable societal costs. The Society of Actuaries found that, in 2009, the average annual cost of obesity in the U.S. was nearly $300 billion in additional medical costs and lost productivity. That cost is expected to surpass more than $340 billion a year before the decade is out.

Lest anyone think that the costs are only borne in old age, the CDC found that the costs of hospitalizing children for obesity-related issues rose from $125.9 million in 2001 to $237.6 million in 2005. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that children treated for obesity-related issues are liable to cost either their parents or the government (if they are covered by Medicaid) $2,500 to $4,200 more than a normal-weight child per year.

By failing to make the right argument for the right reason, the implicit issue at the heart of this controversy — the alarming degradation of children's health in this country — has turned into a debate over minutes and seconds when it should be a debate over vitamins, minerals, and calories. If parents are genuinely concerned about the health of their children, there is no room for error. The individual costs are too high and the societal costs too grand for parents to waste boundless time and energy making the wrong argument, regardless of whether it is for the right reason.

It would be wise to spend a fraction of what would be future health-care costs on our children's nutrition today. Fighting to extend lunch hours is fine, but a community doing so for penny-wise, pound-foolish reasons speaks to a very fundamental problem.

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