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Schools Serve Up Heart Disease, Diabetes, and Obesity-Related Health Problems

Schools Serve Up Heart Disease, Diabetes, and Obesity-Related Health Problems


As back-to-school time nears, kids can look forward to breaking in new backpacks, reuniting with friends, meeting teachers and classmates – and, some argue, struggling with obesity due to school lunches loaded with unnecessary fat and calories.

Startlingly, the number of overweight children in the United States has tripled since 1980, and the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity estimates that by 2010, half of America's children will be overweight or obese. Obesity can lead to severe health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, and health officials estimate that it will soon trump smoking as a killer.

Some assert that schools cannot be held responsible for the rise in childhood obesity. However, many children eat two meals a day at school, which accounts for the bulk of their calories and fat intake for the day before they even head home.

This is in part because of a government effort begun decades ago. In 1946, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was instituted to provide cheap or free lunches to help feed poor, hungry, malnourished schoolchildren.

Now, the NSLP operates as it did 60 years ago, feeding children as though they are starving even though the obesity rate continues to rise. Though the proportion of calories from fat in the lunches was reduced from 39 percent to 34 percent, many argue that not enough has been done on a national level to combat unhealthy school lunches.

The NSLP's lunches are by no means the only problem in the great lunch debate. Children who can afford to opt out of the cafeteria lunch program often have easy access to fast food and vending machine snacks. While the NSLP lunches have to meet some federal nutritional standards, other lunch and snack options do not. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 percent of schools sell fast food, and vending machines are present in 43 percent of elementary schools, 74 percent of middle schools, and nearly all high schools. Fast food and vending snacks are generally heavy in sugar, salt, and fat, and can severely undermine any efforts for change the NSLP sets out to make.

Those lobbying for change face a host of stumbling blocks, including government restrictions in terms of available food surpluses (the NSLP utilizes surplus commodities made plentiful by government subsidies to manufacturers), schools' reluctance to sacrifice revenue earned by junk food vendors, and "customers" who have been conditioned to enjoy unhealthy food that can contribute to disease and premature death.

Regardless, the recognition of childhood obesity as a national health crisis is spurring change. In Florida, for example, a program called Healthier Options for Public Schoolchildren (HOPS) has been started by Arthur Agatston, cardiologist of The South Beach Diet fame. In California, a new law mandates that lunch entrees cannot exceed 400 calories, nor can they contain more than four grams of fat per 100 calories. Also, self-proclaimed fast food fan Bill Clinton has started a campaign to rid all schools of soda by the year 2010.

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