As a parent, there are many variations upon this theme: how to help your kids make smart choices. Smart can mean many different things, from healthy to kind to compassionate to responsible to self-protective… Parents practice their messages, repeating phrases like, "Is that your best choice?" or "How will you feel about that choice tomorrow?" or any other number of catchphrases that get at the same basic principle, which is that throughout life, you'll be making choices; learning to do so well is a skill to hone. Making choices can be complicated, for many choices require an ability to be not only in the moment but to think ahead, to perceive consequences and outcomes and potential fallout. Making choices isn't always easy, that much is for certain. From grabbing a fellow toddler's hair to doing homework to sneaking a pile of contraband (as innocent as candy, as dangerous as drugs or alcohol especially if driving is involved for the latter two), kids–like adults–make loads of decisions. Sometimes, for parents, it's daunting to make choices on our children's behalf or to figure out when to cede the decision making to the kids. For example, my husband and I spent a while yesterday at a Fourth of July party discussing with another set of parents when to let kids ride bikes around town solo or where we feel comfortable letting them go with a friend on foot. These seemingly small choices sometimes feel overwhelming.

Quite often these days, especially with the economy melting down, I find it painful to watch the choices being made, ones that so often seem pound foolish or special interest driven or simply lacking in accounting for that complicated notion of tomorrow. Case in point: an article this week in the New York Times reported that many school districts have severely slashed or entirely cut summer school programs this year. The things summer school offers–especially for underserved populations–are critical, from childcare to structure to academic and arts enrichment to safe, positive social contact… Arguably, doing away with this service is one of the most effective ways to widen the achievement gap in this country. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have made a compelling argument in favor of the connections between summer enrichment and academic achievement. Says Ron Fairchild, executive director for the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University, these cuts are "having a disproportionate impact on low-income families.” Not all districts are cutting back and a few are using new federal stimulus dollars to retain summer school programming. And obviously, budgetary deficits cannot be wished away (I am bad with numbers, but not that bad).

Paul Krugman, over the past couple of weeks, has made a similar point about health care reform. The choices made today must be forward-thinking and strong, he posits. Recently, he wrote: "The point is that if you’re making big policy changes, the final form of the policy has to be good enough to do the job. You might think that half a loaf is always better than none — but it isn’t if the failure of half-measures ends up discrediting your whole policy approach." Compromises are part of life, absolutely, but the essence of Krugman's assessment is that Obama cannot cater to special interests or oppositional Republicans or conservatives within his party when it comes to economic reform or public health care. The situation is dire enough that a partial solution is akin to no solution. The same, arguably, might hold true with banking. Frank Rich, writing about Wall Street's nefarious hold on economic policy, quoted Felix Salmon of Reutiers, who wrote that he couldn’t “'think of a single government regulation over the past couple of decades which has remotely harmed Goldman Sachs' as opposed to the many that 'have done it a world of good.'” Those directly connected to Goldman have been in key policy shaping roles over this time period.

Not unrelated is the message of the new film, Food, Inc. The film–like many researchers, public health experts, physicians, nutritionists, advocates for organic farming and local food production, and environmentalists have long argued–reaffirms the links between the food industry's bottom line, and keeping things status quo. The ways artificial ingredients, corn and soy have cheapened food in terms of having any nutritional value as well as costwise, and put profits for food production into corporate hands with deep pockets is reprehensible. Given that many abstain from cigarette smoking but everyone eats (some better than others, to be sure), this is quite likely an even bigger disgrace than the ways government has quietly protected the tobacco lobby. How can anyone feel complacent about the fact that food represents less of most people's budgets currently than decades ago while health care costs rise and most importantly, our nation's health is fast declining? So much of that decline can be traced to these mass-produced, unbeneficial foods. Look at how diabetes has skyrocketed, at every age. And how, like the achievement gap we see in regards to summer school, obesity and diabetes in youth is especially disproportionate in poor populations. Or, ponder how it's harder to find fresh produce in a poor urban area–and more expensive–than in an upscale suburban one.

There are plenty of great ways to address issues of health and nutrition and education. High school students in many cities now may take part in leadership programs like Summer Search, which matches students with summer programs for two summers, with strong support and mentorship to ensure those summer experiences are successful.There are volunteer-led programs that find different ways to help fill gaps in health care. There are programs to help cities become fit. There are almost exponential increases in urban gardening initiatives and school programming that involves gardening and farming, also in cities. Clearly, not only do we know there are problems, we know there are solutions (well, if not solutions, ways to address difficult problems). On a larger scale than (specific, targeted) program by program, addressing changes in systems already in place is extremely difficult. Beyond the act of will to make hard choices, the step before making one of those choices is slowing down enough–arresting existing momentum–to consider and then make meaningful change. That kind of deliberate change is painful, slow, and difficult even if in the end, it might be exciting and deeply satisfying. But those are the kinds of smart (and overdue) choices that we really must make.