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Bipartisan deal on school nutrition bill keeps children on a healthier course

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a walking billboard for the cost of unhealthy eating, says first lady Michelle Obama has no business working to make school lunches healthier.

Fortunately, other Republicans agreed to a compromise that extends Obama’s important work in the nation’s school cafeterias. The reasons for Republican resistance to the nutrition program were unfortunate, and evidence of who matters in Washington, but the good news is that it got done and the interests of the children – and, not incidentally, the nation – were served.

In fact, the bipartisan agreement by the Senate Agriculture Committee offers a demonstration on how American government is supposed to work. The committee hammered out a five-year bill for school nutrition and related programs, relaxing whole grain requirements and sodium limits while preserving fruit and vegetable standards and keeping junk food off menus. The cost is $30 billion per year.

This was an urgent matter, notwithstanding the braying of critics. While there are some signs of improvement among American children, the nation remains mired in a prolonged crisis of juvenile obesity and diabetes. It’s because Americans eat too much junk and, for years, schools were among the worst enablers, even selling space to companies placing vending machines crammed with unhealthy, fat-producing snacks.

It’s a crisis because those children are facing the real prospect of years of medical problems and even untimely deaths. That will cost them and the nation billions of health care dollars. And it is also harming national security, with two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff writing 10 years ago that more than one-quarter of all Americans between 17 and 24 were too fat to serve in the military. How again is this not the public’s business?

All of that, perhaps, was on the minds of the Agriculture Committee when it approved the measure at the urging of the School Nutrition Association, which represents educators who have to follow the federal rules.

In a better world, the nutritional needs of children would have been the North Star of this measure. But we live in this world, where money and lobbying and corporate greed make a difference. So in the end, it is a relief that this bipartisan measure was approved by the committee, with both sides claiming victory and urging Congress to pass the measure.

Unless it wants to condemn generations of American youth to decades of ill health – even requiring, as in Christie’s case, drastic lap band surgery – it should not only approve, but applaud the measure. We need to change the direction of American health, and proper nutrition is a key to that work. If that happens, future generations will be better off and the Joint Chiefs of Staff might even sleep a little easier.