Ongoing federal efforts to make school meals more nutritious and widely available to low-income students are working and should be left alone, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday in a conference call including doctors from some of the nation’s top health organizations.

“With one-third of our children being obese and 15.8 million of our children being food insecure, now is not the time to take a step back,” said Vilsack, who stressed the need for congressional lawmakers to support the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010.

“Now is not the time to walk back away from the progress we’ve made to date,” he said.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was implemented to help reduce childhood obesity while instituting new nutrition standards for food offered in public schools. The act helped reduce fat and sodium, while adding more fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals and snacks.

Vilsack said today there is a 93 percent adherence rate among schools following the new nutritional guidelines. In addition, 70 percent of elementary school students have accepted the new nutritional standards.

However, the standards haven’t been accepted by all. Some congressional lawmakers have disagreed with the changes due to the costs involved and strictness of the guideline. 

Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, the American Heart Association’s chief medical officer for prevention, urged Congress “to leave the current nutrition standards intact.”

“Under the nation’s school meal program, children are eating foods with less fat, less sugar and less salt, and they are learning lifelong eating habits now that will reduce their risk for heart disease and stroke in the future,” Sanchez said during the conference call. “We must protect the tremendous progress we’ve made in serving healthier foods in schools. If we weaken any of these nutrition standards, it really would be a significant setback for kids’ health.”

The biggest setback would be in changing sodium level requirements, Sanchez said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine out of 10 children take in too much salt, putting them at increased risk for developing high blood pressure.

“That can lead to heart disease and stroke before they even become adults,” Sanchez said.

Dr. Robert M. Wah, president of the American Medical Association, said establishing healthier eating habits in children now will mean lower future health care costs, particularly expenses linked with obesity-related problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even some types of cancer. It also can lead to fewer days missed at school and, much later, at work.

Healthier people, he said, “are generally just happier and more successful overall.”

“We want the healthy choice to be the easy choice for our kids,” he said.

Dr. Benard Dreyer, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, also urged keeping current school nutrition guidelines in place.

“Keeping children healthy is not a political issue, it’s a moral imperative,” he said.