Credit: George Danby

Over the past four decades, obesity rates in America have nearly tripled. One in five school age children has obesity. We now know that the quality of the food we provide to our children is directly correlated to their mental and physical well-being, as well as their educational achievement. Nutrition matters and offering kids locally sourced, healthier food choices in school can help break the cycle of diet-related diseases and poor academic performance.

Children consume as much as half of their food during the school day, according to the CDC. And for low-income children, their school meals may be the only meals they have. If schools serve only processed foods, our kids will remain unaware of how to properly nourish their bodies and will be more likely to choose foods without nutritional value outside of school.

This month, I introduced the Kids Eat Local Act because our children deserve healthy, nutritious meals that are made with ingredients from local and regional farmers. My bill is a commonsense solution that not only keeps our schoolchildren healthy, but also promotes new business opportunities for local farms and helps families to learn about the healthy foods grown in their communities.

Under current law, school systems are unable to ask for “local” as a product specification in procurement requests. For example, Maine schools cannot issue a request for proposals solely for Maine potatoes. Currently, schools can only use a “geographic preference” option, meaning they can award bonus points to bidders who can supply Maine potatoes. That option can be confusing and burdensome, so it is not often used by schools across the country. As lawmakers, we should be encouraging schools to purchase local foods through commonsense regulatory changes so that schools can more easily support farmers in our state and region.

Under the bill, schools will be able to buy their produce from local and regional growers, which in turn boosts local and regional economies. Additionally, this will cut down on the transportation miles that food travels. This bill provides flexibility to schools but does not mandate anything. Schools will continue deciding what foods to purchase and defining what “local” means to them. It also will not cost the federal government anything.

I’ve long believed that food is medicine. That’s why I helped to start Congress’s first Food is Medicine Working Group — a bipartisan group within the House Hunger Caucus. The working group emphasizes the link between nutrition and health and aims to shine a brighter light on how good nutrition can actually prevent diet-related diseases.

We owe it to our children to provide them with healthy food that they can enjoy during the school day. I introduced the Kids Eat Local Act to inform the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which Congress is likely to work on this year. The bill is endorsed by many farming and nutrition organizations as well as members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, so I am excited about the opportunity to work together on this win-win issue. Giving our kids the most nutritious choices is the right step in allowing our kids to live healthy, successful lives.

Chellie Pingree represents Maine’s 1st Congressional District in the US House of Representatives.