Though the titanic political and legal battle raging for four years over President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act appears to be ebbing, a potentially more significant health initiative – First Lady Michelle’s Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity — has made steady progress with fewer pyrotechnics.

Or so it seemed until recently, when food industry lobbyists closed in to try to strangle the campaign in its cradle.

The Obama administration’s approach to child obesity has been two pronged. In 2010, it pushed through legislative changes to the school lunch program and also set up a public-private task force, with Michelle Obama as spokesperson, to promote wellness, better nutrition and more exercise for kids.

The National School Lunch program, first created in 1946, provides federally subsidized meals for schoolchildren in public and nonprofit private schools. It was modified by the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, requiring participating local school systems to establish healthy nutritional guidelines for all foods available on the school campus during the school day.

Regulations promulgated under the act set standards designed to reduce sodium (salt) intake, boost whole grains, and increase fresh fruits and vegetables in lunches.

Several large school districts, armies of agribusiness lobbyists and the School Nutrition Association (representing school nutrition workers and heavily financed by the food industry) have pushed Congress to create legislation that would allow schools to opt out of these requirements. Their mantra is that the existing regulations cost schools too much money and cause food wastage by children who, habituated to fast-food staples like fries, chicken nuggets and sugared beverages, would rather trash than eat unfamiliar healthy fare.

Michelle Obama, backed by health activists and natural food producers, has vowed to fight back. And fight she should! Nothing less than the nation’s future health is at stake.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years, and, in 2012, more than one third of children were overweight or obese.

Obesity and the dietary causes of obesity constitute a major public health problem, not only in the U.S. but throughout the industrialized world.

Processed foods are loaded with sugar, starches, fats and salt to make them tastier. When ingested in more than modest amounts, these ingredients add unnecessary pounds to the waistline and contribute to a variety of debilitating and potentially deadly medical conditions, including high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, and tooth decay, not to mention psycho-social problems such as poor self-esteem and stigmatization. Medical research has even suggested that excessive sugar consumption accelerates tumor growth and contributes to fatigue and malnutrition in cancer patients.

It’s not that poor dietary habits are anything new for the human species. As anthropologist, historian and biologist Jarod Diamond points out in “The World Until Yesterday” and other books, the human diet has become increasingly unhealthy since the invention of agriculture about 12,000 years ago.

Primitive hunter-gatherers, who preceded farmers and have continued to live alongside them in ever decreasing numbers, survive on a varied diet of nuts, berries, roots and meat — foods rich in protein, minerals, vitamins and fiber. The greatest hazards to their health are not food-related maladies, but endemic warfare, accidents, animal predators and infectious disease.

Agriculture, on the other hand, supports larger populations per square mile, but produces food that is less healthy and suited to humans, who evolved long before its invention. In other words, progress has allowed more people to be fed at the expense of individual health.

The Let’s Move program and the Hunger-Free Kids Act offer the prospect of reversing this trend, not only by enhancing the nutrition of school-age youngsters but by shaping their dietary habits into adulthood. Like it or not, proper nutrition, like refraining from drug and alcohol abuse, unsafe sex, and bullying, is a topic which needs to be taught in school because it’s either not being taught effectively or at all at home.

Nor does the law represent the advance of “nanny state,” as conservative critics like to claim. Schools are allowed plenty of leeway in implementing its standards. For instance, if deep-fried chicken is a staple of local cuisine, then baked, breaded chicken, perhaps with whole-grain breading, can be substituted. And Congress already bowed to industry pressure in 2011 to permit the tomato paste in pizza to be counted as a “vegetable.”

Federal action is legally and fiscally justifiable, because the U.S. government pays at both ends and, therefore, should have a say in what kids eat at school. Washington not only directly subsidizes the school lunch program, it often ends up paying, through Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security Disability, the VA, and medical research funding, for treatment of those who become sick from a lifetime of eating unhealthy foods due to bad habits formed in childhood. The Supreme Court has long held that the federal government can attach strings to the benefits it hands out.

Waivers or delayed implementation are simply a backdoor way to for business interests to gut reforms like those introduced into the school lunch program. They are the traditional second line of defense after lobbyists and friendly legislators have stretched outright denial to the limits of plausibility (a tactic successfully used for decades to prevent passage of laws regulating leaded gasoline, pesticides, tobacco, unsafe automobiles, water pollution, air pollution and greenhouse emissions).

The slogan “Let’s Move” is an apt one. It’s evokes not only a call for kids to exercise to burn off excess calories but for the nation to make advances in public health through better nutrition. It can likewise serve as a battle cry for the public to mobilize in support of the campaign to end childhood obesity.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is the founder of Museum L-A and author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be reached at [email protected]


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