By: Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

Between 1997 and 2007, one quarter of all U.S. counties saw an actual reduction in life expectancy for women. Girls born today are expected to live shorter lives than their mothers. Boys are also seeing declines in life expectancy — in some parts of the United States, the average male would live longer if he lived in Africa. Our country is now ranked 50th in the world for life expectancy. What is going on here?

Much of this downward path has been proven to be caused by eating habits that are formed as youngsters. The result is that more than a third of our fellow citizens are obese, and another third are overweight enough to shorten their lives.

Another startling factoid: Due to their poverty level, one in two American school children are now eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches. You read that right — 31 million kids out of 55 million get subsidized food due to their financial status.

Subsidized lunches are supposed to help the less fortunate children among us. Yet, as a result of the 2005 Department of Agriculture school lunch program design that allows for less than 5 percent of the budget to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, these lunches are helping to make children fat.

My colleague Linda van Slyke found some wonderful examples of success stories of communities that have solved this problem. They provide us with a powerful path forward.

California’s Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) has a K-6 Farm to School Program. Its farmers’ market salad bar is stocked daily with 50-100 percent locally-grown produce. Special efforts are made to include community farmers in the program by incorporating visits by farmers to the classrooms, and visits by students to the farms. The program began with grant funding in 2005, but is now sustained by the district’s own funding. A 2008-2009 research study by UNC-Chapel Hill found that “food costs were no greater in the salad bar schools compared to the comparison schools” and the program “generates revenue for small farmers.”

In Connecticut, the New Haven public schools began the switch two years ago and now offers salad bars in 85 percent of its 46 public schools. The school system has also increased the amount of green and orange vegetables, and serves brown rice instead of white. Students get involved on a farm-to-table level via community gardens at some schools where they can grow vegetables that are then made available on the salad bar.

In 2000, the Los Angeles Unified School District launched a salad-bar program in three schools. They saw an 84 percent increase in fruit-and-vegetable consumption during lunch. More than half the children chose the salad bar for lunch on any given school day. There was a significant daily decrease in the children’s total calories, as well as in their consumption of cholesterol and saturated fats.

Many other schools would like to imitate these success stories but are blocked by lack of funds — they don’t have the extra 5-14 cents per meal per day it would take.

This is a “pay me now or pay me later” problem for the taxpayer. Cough up the pennies per day for good school food, or the hundreds and thousands of dollars a day for doctors and hospital care later.

This is up to the adults to fix, acting as good parents, elected officials, and caring people. You can help by working with your local schools to develop a system of measurements about food offerings, and weight gains among students, and devising programs to get locally grown fruits and vegetables to the students. The besieged school administrators, and our kids, need you to support them — and so does our country.