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Is school making Johnny fat?
What you can do to cut junk food in your child's school

kids eating Healthful dietary messages are "barely audible" amid ads on TV and in schools telling kids to consume junk food, sugared cereal, and soda, according to a Consumers Union study.

Another recent report by the Institute of Medicine (www.iom.edu) concludes that the promotion of food and beverages has had a direct impact on kids' food intake, nutritional status, and health and has contributed to the rise in childhood obesity. The Institute, an independent scientific body that advises the government on food and nutrition recommendations, calls on food and beverage companies to send more healthful messages to youth.

Food advertising--the bulk of it for candy, soft drinks, and convenience foods such as fast food and processed fare--topped $11 billion in 2004, compared with $9.5 million spent promoting the government's "5 A Day" fruit and vegetable campaign, according to Out of Balance, a September 2005 report by Consumers Union, and the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. In such a climate, "it's no wonder that healthful dietary messages from government, parents, and others are barely audible," the report concludes.

School daze

Most children in U.S. public schools are routinely exposed to ads or marketing from food and beverage companies--the vast majority of them for nutritionally empty and/or high-fat or high-calorie products, according to Alex Molnar, Ph.D., an Arizona State University professor who researches commercialism in schools. In addition to sales through vending machines, such marketing can take the form of exclusive agreements with soft-drink and fast-food companies, brand-sponsored educational materials, sports sponsorships, incentive programs like contests, and direct advertising.

The rising presence of soda and junk food in school has paralleled another trend: a decline in physical education, driven in part by funding cuts and increased emphasis on test scores. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 8 percent of elementary schools and 6 percent of middle/junior high schools provide daily physical education or the equivalent. For high schools, the numbers are lower.

Fighting back

Some recent changes suggest that the tide may be turning against junk food in schools. In 2005, for example, California and New Jersey banned the sale of soft drinks and other junk food at public schools--legislation that may serve as a model for other states. Local districts in various states have made similar changes, from banning carbonated drinks, to removing or revamping vending machines, to taking fried food out of the cafeteria. Kids who used to buy a daily Coke or Pepsi may now find their options limited to milk, chocolate milk, 100 percent fruit juice, or water. Pressure from parent and teacher groups has been a catalyst for some of those changes.

What you can do

Childhood obesity has many causes. Here's what you can do to encourage good habits:

At school
  • Do a walk-through. Visit your child's school and observe what's being sold. What is in the vending machine? Can kids buy soda or chips part of the day or all day? Are branded food ads or promotions visible? Bring a notepad to keep track of your findings.

  • Get the facts. Contact the school board or school superintendent and ask what contracts, if any, your district has with food or beverage marketers or other commercial entities and how much revenue those agreements provide. Propose alternatives.

  • Point out problems. If junk food is there, kids will buy it. Encourage the school to replace--not just supplement--soda, candy, and such offerings with more healthful fare.

  • Organize. A survey commissioned by the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that parents and teachers overwhelmingly support converting the contents of vending machines to healthier options. Team up with like-minded parents and faculty members who share your concerns.

  • Help develop school policy. Federal law requires each school district receiving government reimbursements for school lunches, or nearly all public districts, to create a "local wellness policy," including nutrition standards for school lunches and other foods sold on campus, and goals for physical activity by the start of the 2006-2007 school year. The law requires schools to involve parents in developing the policy.
At home
  • Watch liquid calories. In addition to limiting your kids' soda intake, be wary of sports and energy drinks, which can be loaded with caffeine, sugar, or both. Opt for water, milk, and pure fruit juices without added sugar or corn syrup.

  • Turn off the tube. Several studies have correlated the amount of time children spend watching television with rates of obesity. Setting limits on television viewing may help by encouraging alternate activities.

  • Cook with healthful ingredients. Modify recipes to include skim or low-fat milk rather than whole, olive oil instead of butter, or whole-grain pasta or rice rather than white. Bulk up recipes with extra vegetables. Serve fruit with whipped topping or low-fat yogurt for dessert. Try cooking a healthful recipe together as a family activity.

  • Make exercise a family affair. Go biking or inline skating, or play tag at the park. If your family spends most of its time indoors, get up during TV commercial breaks and do jumping jacks or dance around. Or invest in a kid-friendly dance or fitness video.

  • Encourage all kinds of exercise. Tossing a Frisbee or softball provides as good a workout as playing a game with a winner and loser.
See our reports on useful parenting Web sites and kids' backpacks, available to subscribers. Also see our free reports on caffeine and kids, kids' cell phones, and the meningitis vaccine.

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