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School Food: A battleground in the fight against obesity

The number of seriously overweight children in America has tripled in the past 20 years. Kids are not only battling the bulge, they are now battling grown-up illnesses like Type II Diabetes, once only an adult concern. As health officials search for culprits in the obesity epidemic, what children are eating at school has come under scrutiny.

About 13 percent of American children and teenagers were overweight in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, according to a "call to action" released by the U.S. Surgeon General in December, 2001. Troublingly, overweight adolescents more often than not end up as overweight or obese adults.

"Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," now former Surgeon General David Satcher warned. Schools need to offer more foods that are low in fat and calories, as well as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat or non-fat dairy products, he said.


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Food Fight

The National School Lunch Program, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is no stranger to criticism. Set up in 1946 by President Truman to provide low-cost or free lunches for the nation's school children, the program has long been derided for a menu that often stars dishes like pizza and "chips ole."

The lunch program was revamped in 1995 under the leadership of FoodFit founder Ellen Haas, then USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. Today, school lunches must meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of total calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. But health officials, parents, and even the USDA say the meals often fail to meet that goal.

"Unfortunately, there are very poor quality foods being offered through schools for a variety of reasons—cost-cutting, franchises with the food industry and sometimes literally the dumping of excess food available through the USDA into the schools, with health promotion appearing low on the list of factors in designing the nature of the school lunch," says Dr. David Ludwig, who teaches at Harvard University and directs the obesity program at Children's Hospital in Boston.

"Some of the choices are okay but there are too many opportunities to choose junk over something I'd prefer my child to eat," says Joanne Fillion, a writer based in Evergreen, CO. She says whenever her six-year-old daughter Jane has a hot school lunch she is offered a choice between regular or chocolate milk. "You can't blame her for choosing chocolate. Some kids have it every day. At her pre-school, they had a policy where they only offered chocolate milk on Fridays. I liked that because it was a treat."

Junk Patrol

At the same time, sales of soda, fast food, and junk food in schools is setting off alarm bells.

Some 43 percent of elementary schools, 74 percent of junior highs and 98 percent of high schools have vending machines, snack bars and the like, according to a 2000 study of school health policies and programs by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Half of the nation's school districts have exclusive contracts with soft drink companies. It's become a popular way for financially strapped schools to bring in money. And about a quarter of all schools allow candy, fast food, and soft drink promotions through free or reduced price coupons, according to the CDC study.

Currently, the only federal restriction is that foods of minimal nutritional value like soda, gum, and lollypops cannot be sold in the cafeteria during meal times. Critics say schools undermine the rule by giving away sodas during lunch. And the CDC found 68 percent of schools allowed soda sales from vending machines and snack bars during lunch hour.

"If you give your kids money for lunch you want them not to buy junk food, but to buy a lunch," says Maryland mom Ruth Evans, who has sons in elementary, middle and high school.

She added since her oldest son Greg stopped making his lunch, "I'm concerned about what he might be eating during the day, because he would buy junk food. He would also buy a piece of fruit if he could, but I don't think they offer it."

Attack on Snacks

On Capitol Hill, Senator Patrick Leahy has introduced a bill to mandate that sodas and unhealthy snacks not be sold or given to students in schools during meals. The Democrat from Vermont also wants the Agriculture Secretary to review whether a wider regulation is needed. Leahy's press secretary David Carle told FoodFit the senator hopes his bill will be folded into the reauthorization of the national school lunch program next year.

Dr. Ludwig, who has co-authored a study linking soft drink consumption to obesity in children, thinks schools should shut their doors to soda, candy and junk food all together.

"The purpose of schools and education is to teach children how to be successful as adults in modern society and that certainly involves cognitive skills, but just as important is to develop healthful lifestyle practices which will ensure that these children remain productive members of society for years to come."

— Leila Corcoran

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