As the United States moves toward rebuilding its economy and ensuring the long-term strength of our middle class, we’re mindful of the wise words of President Harry Truman: “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children.” By that measure, we have some work to do, and we’re tackling it head on.

Over the last three decades, obesity rates have tripled. Today one in three children is at risk for preventable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease due to being overweight.

If left unaddressed, health experts tell us that our current generation of children may actually have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

To confront this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken significant strides to help make sure America’s children are eating better and leading healthier lives.

In December 2010, a coalition of parents, teachers, advocates, school lunch professionals, doctors and even retired military leaders worked with Congress to help pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The act is a huge win for millions of schoolchildren. It allows us to combat child hunger and obesity and improve the health and nutrition of the nation’s children with the most comprehensive changes to school food in decades.

The department recently finalized the improvements to food served to 32 million American children every day in the school lunch program. The new standards — based on the most up-to-date science — will make the same kinds of practical changes that many parents are already encouraging at home.

Students will be offered daily servings of fruit, vegetables and whole grains along with portion sizes and calorie counts designed to maintain a healthy weight. We’ll reduce the amount of saturated fat, trans-fats and salt in children’s meals.

The Agriculture Department has also been pushing schools to reinforce healthy lifestyles. We’ve worked with schools across the country, recognizing more than 2,100 with honors for meeting tough standards to expand nutrition and physical activity opportunities. And soon we will bring healthy choices beyond the lunch line to all foods sold in schools — including vending machines and the a la carte line — so we make the healthy choice the easy choice for students.

The Agriculture Department is working with parents, teachers and others to encourage kids to lead healthy, active lifestyles.

Through our Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative and other similar work, we are working to make it easier for families to access healthy food in rural and urban communities that may lack a convenient supermarket. We are teaching kids about healthy foods through school and community gardens.

First lady Michelle Obama has been an important partner in this effort. Through her Let’s Move! program, famous athletes are stepping up by renovating playgrounds and school gymnasiums; community activists are bringing farmers’ markets to underserved areas; and food-industry leaders have agreed to participate in our work to raise a healthier generation of kids.

At the end of the day, the strength of our communities, our economy and our national security depends on the health of our children.

The administration is committed to leading the way so that, together with leaders and partners from across the nation, we can help feed every American child the nutritious food they deserve to excel, thrive and succeed in their lives.

Tom Vilsack is U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. This essay was distributed by MCT Information Services.

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