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Article of Interest - Nutrition

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Bridges4Kids LogoFL Pediatricians Push for Healthier School Food in Florida
Schools may sift out sugar; Proposal would add juice, cut soft drinks.
by Diane Chun, Gainesville Sun, November 19, 2003
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Visit an area high school or middle school, and you’ll discover that the student body is getting super-sized.

A group of University of Florida pediatric residents hoping to fix that has launched a campaign to change what is offered in middle and high school vending machines.

“We want to assure these children won’t be in an environment with ready access to high-calorie beverages and really fatty fats,” said Dr. Stephen Messner, one of four pediatric residents who have formed an advocacy group to urge a change in Alachua County’s schools.

“We decided to target one thing, and thought if we could change the soda machines in the schools, then perhaps we could have a small but significant impact overall,” Messner added.

A survey released last week by the state Department of Health focused on Florida’s middle school students. It found that less than half of them ate breakfast every day, and almost half ate at a fast-food restaurant two or more times a week.

Students who did not eat breakfast in the morning often turned to junk food later in the day — the sugary soft drinks, chips and candy that often were available in school vending machines.

"As a species, we’re getting too heavy to be healthy,” Dr. John Agwunobi, Florida’s secretary of health, said in announcing the survey results. “These numbers in the schools portend trouble in the future.”

Dr. Janet Silverstein, professor and chief of pediatric endocrinology in the University of Florida College of Medicine, is among the medical professionals sounding the alarm over the latest childhood obesity statistics.

It is, she says simply, a huge medical issue.

“Sixty-five percent of obese children ages 5 to 10 have at least one cardiovascular risk factor: hypertension, high lipids or abnormal glucose intolerance,” Silverstein said. “More than a quarter had two or more risk factors.”

Pediatricians are seeing medical conditions that previously were thought of as adult medical problems in children as young as 2, Silverstein said.

Referring to the campaign to make school vending machine offerings more healthy, she said, “We want to target middle and high school children who have some control over what they eat and what they do in terms of activities. We think we have a fairly good chance there despite a rapidly increasing epidemic of obesity.”

Dr. Marilyn Dumont-Driscoll, an associate professor of pediatrics, is working with the pediatric residents on their project.

“As pediatricians and advocates for children, we are very concerned about the obvious message given by selling these types of snacks and beverages in a school setting,” Dumont-Driscoll said. “Our educational sites should provide a high standard of nutrition and serve as a role model for healthy eating.”

Among the alarming trends the group cites: A study among children found that one serving of soft drinks a day increased the risk of becoming overweight by 60 percent over the course of a year.

“It is conceivable that a student could go through all of high school, conceivably even all of middle school, and get all of their food and beverage products from vending machines,” Messner said.

Dr. Allison Wentworth, another pediatric resident, adds, “A 20-ounce bottle of sugared soda offers an incredibly high amount of calories with no nutritional content whatsoever. That choice is being made in place of milk, water and things the body needs at an age when you are still growing.”

The group of pediatricians has approached both the Alachua County School Board and school principals with a proposal that would radically change what was offered in vending machines. Sales of beverages with 100 percent fruit juice and no added sweeteners would be allowed, along with water, low-fat and nonfat milk (including soy milk or rice milk), and sports drinks that do not contain more than 42 grams of added sweetener per 20-ounce serving.

Gone would be soft drinks, sport drinks, iced tea and other drinks containing less than 100 percent real fruit juice. Not to be found: caffeinated beverages. Except for water, all drink choices would be in 12-ounce cans, not 20-ounce plastic bottles.

If sugared soft drinks were offered, then they would be priced higher, with water being the “best buy” in the vending machine.

Their call to action has gone largely unheard, the pediatric residents say. Some principals said changing what was offered in the vending machines would cut into the profits the school shares from those same machines.

While soda may not boost health, its profits in area middle and high schools often benefit the student body. Individual principals can contract with a supplier, and the money brought in from commission-based sales of Coke or Pepsi products goes into student activities.

“We showed them the data that show when school districts changed out the products in the vending machines, there was no decline in the revenue from sales,” Messner said.

In a limited pilot program in three high schools in Los Angeles, Snickers bars and soda were replaced with healthier counterparts in March. A report this week suggests that kids may not be buying the lesson in healthy eating. Snack sales have slumped more than 40 percent.

Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Unified School District will go ahead with plans to ban soft drink sales at 677 campuses, beginning in January.

Wentworth said she had spoken with area representatives from Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Both offer fruit-based drinks and a line of bottled water. Both say it doesn’t matter from their perspective what products were placed in the machines, as long as they fell under their brand name, she said.

“From a marketing perspective, of course, they find it quite beneficial to have high-calorie, high-caffeine products in these vending machines,” she added. “It develops brand loyalty.”

Just this week, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola announced new policies meant to change how and when drinks are sold in schools. Coke’s new guidelines say that the company will provide a full array of products in schools where it sells soft drinks. The bottler serves about 17,000 U.S. middle and high schools.

Principal Ellen West of Loften High School in Gainesville heard the pediatricians’ message and responded to it by making changes on the Loften campus.

“I was worried about changing out what was in the vending machines, and didn’t want to do it 100 percent,” West said. “We replaced half of the sugary, carbonated, high-caffeine drinks with Gatorade, water or fruit juices. In the snack items, we replaced high-chocolate items with crackers, cheese or low-fat items like pretzels.”

Adding that timing was everything, West noted that the changes were in place when Loften students returned to school this fall.

What she calls “no-no foods” are sold at much higher prices, while the “good-for-you foods” in the vending machines are priced at 40 cents.

And how many complaints has she had?

“One,” she said. “They are still buying.”

West said she will look at the school’s vending receipts at the end of the year, then make a decision as to whether to institute further changes next school year.

“I do think that other school administrators need to look at this idea,” she said. “If we did it as a whole school system, there just wouldn’t be any room for argument.

“Maybe we need to get tough and lock ’em down,” West added. “Let’s make a difference.”
 

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WA Washington Post Column: Inundated With Junk Food at School
by Jabari Asim, Washington Post, November 10, 2003
 

One regular feature of school mornings at our house involves what my wife and I like to call the daily debate.

The disputants are our two primary-school kids, and the issue is whether to have them order lunch in the cafeteria or for us to pack one instead. They are as likely to reach a consensus on this topic as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are to agree on the qualifications of Janice Rogers Brown, whose nomination to be an federal appellate judge cleared that committee last week on a 10-9 vote.

Usually the first-grader wants to buy his lunch, while the third-grader prefers to bring hers from home. "Buy!" "Bring!" These arguments can sound as contentious as Howard Dean and Al Sharpton going chin-to-chin at one of those endless Democratic debates.

Friday mornings, though, our usually testy twosome are as relaxed as members of Congress who've just voted themselves a raise. On such days, the cafeteria fare is something they both love: pizza. In this my little ones are typical Americans. The American School Food Service Association, a watchdog group that monitors the nutritional content of meals served to public school students, ranks pizza No. 1 on its list of pupils' favorite school lunches. At first glance, it seems that such menu fare easily outshines the stuff dished out during my schoolboy days. The most memorable offering then was an amorphous gray glob similar in texture to half-hardened Play-Doh. Enshrouded in an ominous glue-like gravy, it was a concoction derided throughout our vast republic as "mystery meat."

Surprisingly, it may have been better fare than some of the tastier stuff my kids get to choose from. As part of the National School Lunch Program menu, that mystery meat had to satisfy the federal government's dietary guidelines. They recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual's calories come from fat, and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. School lunches, including the pizza meal my kids love, are expected to provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.

But at many schools, pizza is served a la carte alongside soft drinks and other dubious offerings -- and therefore not required to comply with the guidelines. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 56.2 percent of schools offer foods such as pizzas, hamburgers, and sandwiches a la carte. Forty percent offer french fries a la carte, while 60 percent offer baked goods that are not low in fat. This veritable smorgasbord of sugar, starch and salt enables children to satisfy their appetites without doing much to help their bodies.

On Oct. 30, Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey, both Democrats from California, introduced legislation designed to change all this. The Healthy Children Through Better Nutrition Act of 2003 would require a la carte items to comply with federal nutritional requirements. The bill would also provide for improved access to fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

"Childhood obesity is a crisis in America, and high-calorie, fatty foods sold in school cafeterias is a big part of the problem," Miller said when announcing the bill. "By establishing nutrition standards for competitive foods sold in school cafeterias and giving stronger oversight power to the school officials with the most expertise in nutrition, we have a better chance of improving students' health and academic performance."

If it passes, Miller and Woolsey's legislation will no doubt ease the troubled minds of many parents. To others, however, the changes it proposes don't go far enough. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, for example, has called for an overhaul of federal nutritional guidelines regarding school lunches. The group advocates a number of changes, including regular offerings of low-fat vegetarian and vegan entrees. It also opposes the introduction of irradiated beef in school lunches, which the Department of Agriculture will make available for order in January 2004. (School districts can already purchase irradiated beef with their own money if state regulations allow it; the USDA purchases only about 20 percent of the ground beef used in school lunchrooms across the country.)

Should my kids go on to attend our neighborhood middle school, they will pass daily through a hallway lined with candy and soda machines. Alas, few public-school students can avoid such a journey these days. The CDC estimates that 98 percent of public high schools and 75 percent of middle schools in the United States have vending machines.

Coin-operated cola dispensers. Irradiated meat. Calorie-laden sweets. My first-grader won't enjoy hearing me say this, but brown-bagging's sounding better all the time. In fact, home schooling's sounding pretty good too.

    

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