Fat Kids and Fast Food
Obesity is a preventable cause of death that has become a plague on New Mexico's children. So why is junk food being served at our public schools?
By Story and sidebars by Gwyneth Doland and Alison Fields
Face it: As a nation, we're fat and it's killing us. Over the past few decades, changes in the way Americans live, work and eat have made obesity a preventable cause of death that is second only to smoking. While parents, teachers, doctors, lawyers and government agencies have all gone to great pains to educate, legislate, forbid and otherwise appropriately demonize smoking, by bad example, ignorance and neglect on the subject of nutrition and exercise, we are raising a generation of children who are not expected to live as long as their parents.
National statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) show that one-third of adults are officially obese and the same 15 percent of children and teens are obese or close to it. But in New Mexico, more than 56 percent of adults are obese or overweight and nearly 25 percent of children and teens are overweight or at risk. Our numbers are higher, in part, because Hispanic and Native American children are the most vulnerable to obesity and related illnesses like diabetes. The bottom line is that we've got a serious problem on our hands and we need to fix it fast.
Certainly parents should be most responsible for the health of their children, but state and local governments are starting to step in, partly because of rising health care costs. New Mexico spends more than $324 million every year on treating obesity-related illnesses. More than half of that money comes from Medicaid and Medicare.
Last year, the state Legislature commissioned a study to determine whether the lack of physical education and nutrition programs, and the sale of so-called “competitive foods” in public schools were contributing to childhood obesity. In short, the answer was "yes," and the study committee recommended that schools focus on three things: providing nutritional foods, nutritional education and physical education.
Several community and government groups have taken up the cause, and a two-day forum on the subject, held last spring, resulted in an influential document called the Statewide Strategic Action Plan for Physical Activity and Nutrition in the Schools. This plan, and the results of the Legislature's own study, have been used to generate a lot of buzz and the introduction of several new bills.
This week, U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall held a press conference in Santa Fe, supporting the Competitive Foods in Schools Act (SB 295). The bill was introduced by state Sen. Dede Feldman (D-Albuquerque) and is partially the result of lobbying by New Mexico Action for Healthy Kids (NMAFK), the local arm of a national campaign. The bill aims to improve kids' health by regulating foods served and sold in school.
Any food that competes with school lunches—sodas or chips from vending machines, candy from fundraising events, desserts from snack bars—is targeted by Feldman's bill. Come on, you say, how bad could it be to let a kid have a Coke and hot Cheetos for lunch? A 2001 Harvard study showed that even one extra soft drink per day increases the chance of obesity by 60 percent. And according to the state's childhood obesity study, when kids have access to competitive foods, they're less likely to even buy lunch. Eating snacks instead of lunch also leads to tired, irritable kids who struggle to pay attention and get lower grades. School lunch programs are left cash-strapped and struggling to provide nutritious and appealing meals.
If the Competitive Foods in Schools Act passes in it's current form, schools will not only have to change the offerings in their vending machines, they'll be prohibited from signing the exclusive or multi-year contracts that provide hefty bonus payments. Schools would also be asked not to use food for fundraising; when school programs do sell food or drinks, they'll have to comply with strict rules on portion size and nutritional quality. Bye-bye bake sales.
The act spells out what is acceptable and what's not. Chocolate milk is OK, but it must be two percent fat or less. Fruit juice has to be at least 50 percent juice and have no added sugars. Gatorade-type drinks are acceptable, as long as they don't contain more than 23 grams of sugar per 12 ounces. (12-ounce cans of soda usually have between 40 and 50 grams of sugar.) These rules build on suggestions made by the obesity study, and the recommendations of Action for Healthy Kids' Strategic Action Plan.
Opposition to the Bill
Sounds great, right? Why wouldn't a bill like this pass? One stumbling block, supporters say, is the beverage contracts that many schools have signed with vendors like Coke and Pepsi. Money from commissions and exclusivity bonuses has become a source of revenue that schools depend on for everything from textbooks and photocopiers to field trips and spelling bees. Vendors, who depend on school contracts to create new consumers for their products, won't let their contracts go without a fight. Sen. Feldman compares the soda giants to tobacco companies, who used tactics like the cartoon character Joe Camel to target the youth audience. "Pepsi and Coke and all that stuff—the drug du jour for young people." The vendors have lobbyists too and legislators will surely get an earful from food and beverage industry representatives.
Other opposition comes from school administrators who are terrified of losing vending machine funding. Three dozen groups, like the New Mexico Pediatric Society and the New Mexico Public Health Association, have endorsed SB 295. But when Action for Healthy Kids asked the Coalition of School Administrators Association to sign on, they wouldn't do it. Jennie McCary, the Community Nutrition Specialist at Albuquerque Public Schools, and a member of NMAFK, believes that if the bill doesn't pass, "It means we've done a great job of educating the public about the issues ... but we still have to educate the administrators." McCary believes the administrators agree with the bill's philosophy, but need to be convinced it won't ruin them financially. She also believes it's possible to raise money for schools without sacrificing children's' health to do it.
Rep. Tom Swisstack (D-Rio Rancho), who has also introduced a bill that would regulate competitive foods, thinks that it's possible to work within beverage contracts. “Pepsi just recently bought Odwalla, didn't they? We should be able to substitute Odwalla juices for soda in those machines.” (Actually, Coca-Cola owns Odwalla, but both companies own juice brands.) Although not sure how many contracts would allow such a change, Swisstack believes the idea is worth a “hard look.”
The Rest of the Equation: P.E. and Health and Nutrition Classes
Eliminating junk food from schools will certainly help, but kids also need to learn how to eat well and develop exercise habits that will hopefully stick. Rep. Swisstack says, nutritional and physical education are "as important as math, science and technology,” adding, “If a student doesn't have a healthy body and a healthy mind, they're not going to be successful.”
At present, only fourth- through eighth-grade classes receive physical education that meets state standards. Younger kids only have recesses, and high schoolers often fulfill their P.E. requirement by participating in activities like marching band. The Childhood Obesity Study recommended that all kids from kindergarten through 12th grade have at least 150 minutes of weekly physical education. Hiring all those P.E. teachers would be expensive. Rep. Rick Miera (D-Albuquerque) has introduced a bill (HB 62) that would appropriate an annual $4 million for elementary schools statewide to phase in physical education classes over a seven-year period. The bill closely follows one of the Obesity Study's recommendations.
What Miera's bill doesn't address is physical education for older kids or nutrition education. Providing every ninth-grader with one-half unit of health education would cost an extra $4.2 million per year. Why can't we just make all this stuff happen? There is a limit to how much states like New Mexico can do with small budgets and big needs. Even a worst-case-scenario for the loss of revenue from eliminating competetive foods isn't very expensive. Instituting statewide curricula for health and nutrition education, and proving physical education for all children takes time and, more importantly, money.
Members of Action for Healthy Kids will be thrilled if the Competitive Foods Act passes, but they aren't foolish enough to believe it's a sure thing. Dede Feldman is optimistic that change will happen whether her bill passes or not. "Sometimes in the Legislature,” she says, “even when there is opposition and it [a bill] does not pass, it gets implemented anyway by regulation, or the public is convinced and individual school districts may take up the legislation themselves.” (For an example of this, see the sidebar on Albuquerque's Wellness Pilot Project.)
There are still more proposals on the table in Santa Fe, including Swisstack's bill. Rep. Steve Campos (D-Las Vegas) sponsored a bill that would study competetive foods, nutrition and exercise. But otherwise, no bills have yet to propose putting nutrition and health education in schools.
Jennie McCary says, "From my understanding on legislation, it's best not to put all your eggs in one basket. There's a risk that the whole package will fail and then you're left with nothing." McCary would love to see nutrition education happen, but she and Action for Healthy Kids will be happy if they manage to effect nutrition policy through the competetive foods bill.
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Erika Wennerstrom • singer-