Pediatricians Push for Healthier School Food in Florida
Schools may sift out sugar; Proposal would add juice, cut
by Diane Chun, Gainesville Sun, November 19, 2003
For more articles like this
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
“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
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,
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
Dr. Marilyn Dumont-Driscoll, an associate professor of
pediatrics, is working with the pediatric residents on their
“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
“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
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
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.”
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to
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
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
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
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.
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to