Obesity control

Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 10:58 p.m.
Removing snacks and soft drinks from school cafeterias can help to raise awareness about healthy eating habits.
Gov. Jeb Bush wants to trim down the size of state government. But he also wants to reduce the size of the citizens themselves.
Last fall, Bush created a Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic. The 16-member task force met again recently, and came up with 21 goals - reduced from more than 400 ideas considered by the panel.
One of those recommendations: Request - but not require - that school boards replace junk food sold in school vending machines with something more nutritional.
"The critical thing is to make sure that local school boards make sure that what is being sold is of at least minimal nutritional value," said Dr. Zachariah P. Zachariah, a Miami cardiologist and chairman of the task force.
Bush will use the task force's report to come up with recommendations to the Legislature for consideration during the spring session. Ironically, the Legislature is the main reason the vending machines selling junk food are in the schools in the first place.
Strapped for educational funds after cutbacks from Tallahassee, local school boards began contracting with soft drink companies for the vending machine concessions.
Getting the companies out of the schools will be a lot more difficult then it was to get them in. And it may be too much to hope for that American companies will react the same way as they have in Canada.
Recently, Refreshments Canada, a beverage-manufacturers' trade group, announced that its members will pull soft drinks from school vending machines at the beginning of the next school year.
Water and fruit juices will make up at least half the beverage selections at elementary and middle schools. The remaining selections will be for non-carbonated drinks and sport drinks. Calla Farn, the group's public affairs director, said the beverage manufacturers share concerns about the health of Canadian children. About a third of them are overweight.
That's about the same percentage as in the United States. It would be nice if the beverage industry here would have the same reaction as its north-of-the-border counterpart. And it should be noted that, in Canada, the move is being made voluntarily on the part of the soft drink manufacturers - not because of government action.
School boards there were relieved because many had discussed removing soft drinks from school property, but feared that challenging the contracts might result in a financial penalty.
Florida is doing its part to reverse the trend. The state Department of Health, the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture have developed programs to educate families about healthy choices, and the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. The Florida Sports Foundation has developed a "Fit Florida" marketing campaign aimed at students first, and then expanding to reach businesses and adults.
This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted a new policy recommending school districts restrict the sale of soft drinks in school to prevent health problems.
The policy noted that soft drinks are a primary source of added sugar in the daily diet of children. The academy said studies showed that between 56 percent and 85 percent of school-age children consume at least one soft drink daily. A soft drink contains about 10 teaspoons - more than 3 tablespoons - of sugar.
The academy called the availability of soft drinks and sugar-added fruit drinks "ubiquitous," and said that as soft drink consumption increases, milk consumption, a principal source of calcium in the diet, decreases.
The group's policy statement also said that the "U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, is concerned that foods with high sugar content (especially foods of minimal nutritional value, such as soft drinks) are displacing nutrients within the school-lunch program, and there is evidence to support this."
There's much debate about whether Bush's ideas about reducing the size of government help or hurt. But the task force's idea of belt tightening has some good in it for everyone.

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