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Feature

Boy with apple

A present for a teacher? Maybe not. As schools move away from junk food rewards, apples may reverse course and pass from teacher to student.

Food for thought, rethought

Schools that encourage young students to eat junk food may contribute to lifelong bad eating habits

By Deane Morrison

December 9, 2005

School kids sure have it easy these days. They can get soft drinks and snacks from vending machines and down them in classrooms or in the halls. If they read a book a month, the school hands them candy. Best of all, almost all states have dropped the requirement for physical education classes, so no more pointless running around and getting sweaty. That scenario is a generalization, but it describes several practices going on in schools today. Kids may love the availability of food and lack of gym classes , but as with any other trip down easy street, there's a price to pay. A new University study of 3088 eighth-graders in 16 Twin Cities middle schools, headed by nursing assistant professor Martha Kubik, suggests that junk food-friendly school policies may contribute to overweight in students. In schools with such policies as allowing food or beverages in classrooms or halls, using food as rewards or incentives, or selling food as a fund-raiser, the data implied that each practice can raise a student's body mass index (a measure of the relation between height and weight) by 10 percent. These policies all related to how food was used outside the cafeteria. Here's the number of schools (out of 16) that allowed or practiced:

Why food sales, which happen occasionally, should affect student chubbiness as much as allowing food in classrooms, which happens on a daily basis, isn't clear. But Kubik says that food sales could wield power "not just in the eating of foods but in reinforcement and role models." What adolescents see school officials sanctioning and rewarding may help shape a lifetime of eating habits.

"This is an opportunity to access kids at school," says Kubik. "They need opportunities to practice being active and eating healthily in a supportive environment."

Some of the specific food-related activities came out in a previous survey of 700 teachers, Kubik says. In that study, 73 percent of the teachers said they used candy as an incentive or reward at least two to three times a month. Other rewards included cookies, doughnuts, sweetened drinks and pizza. "Schools need to ask why they're allowing these practices," says Kubik, who specializes in obesity prevention and promotion of healthy lifestyles. These findings are part of a larger picture in which children and adolescents are surrounded by a culture of poor eating and exercise habits, says Benjamin Senauer, co-director of the University's Food Industry Center and a professor of applied economics. "Children are surrounded by [junk food] advertising aimed at them; the urban environment offers less room to get exercise, and kids have a lot of computer time," says Senauer. "You can blame Bill Gates for child obesity as much as the food companies." School districts have adopted practices like "pouring rights," in which soft drink companies get exclusive rights to market their wares, to support extracurricular activities that public revenues couldn't sustain, says Senauer. A story in Wednesday's New York Times quotes a study of Oregon schools that disputes whether pouring rights actually bring much money into schools. It seems, according to the article, that most of the pouring is into the pockets of the big bottling companies. But in one hopeful sign, schools are starting to retreat from selling pouring rights, says Senauer. Locally, school districts in Hopkins and St. Paul have been leading the way toward meeting USDA guidelines for healthy school meals, says food science and nutrition professor Len Marquardt, who is helping both districts incorporate more whole-grain items into school menus. For example, Senauer, who is also knowledgable about the efforts, credits Hopkins with such innovations as putting only 100-percent-fruit drinks and water in vending machines, plus healthy snacks like certain trail bars and baked, rather than fried, potato chips. "In Edina, parents were up in arms when they heard about Hopkins and demanded to know why they didn't have this [kind of school nutrition program]," Senauer says. "It takes grass roots pressure and champions to change things." In St. Paul, he says, lunches now include several fruits and vegetables and meet all seven USDA guidelines for school meals, including recommended levels of fat, saturated fat and calories.

School districts have adopted practices like "pouring rights," in which soft drink companies get exclusive rights to market their wares, to support extracurricular activities that public revenues couldn't sustain"

Wednesday brought news of two national movements toward healthier diets for adolescents. The New York Times reported that the Center for Science in the Public Interest is suing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and their local bottlers to ban sales of sugary beverages in schools. And the Associated Press reported that the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, has called upon the food industry to stop marketing junk food to children. University epidemiologist Mary Story was part of the 16-member Institute of Medicine panel that issued the statement. "What the committee found is that the foods advertisd on television are predominantly high-fat, high-calorie, high-sugar foods," Story told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's David Shaffer. "It's not just television advertising. It is product placement, 'adver-gaming' on the Internet, where the product is enbedded in fun games. There are many forms of marketing." In addition, the federal Child Nutrition Act requires wellness plans for students in all school districts, starting in fall 2006. Although it's another unfunded mandate, it gives local districts the power to tailor nutrition, exercise and other programs to their students without micromanaging by the feds. With statistics showing close to a third of children and adolescents overweight, these moves are coming none to soon. Kubik sees an opportunity to improve children's diets, but not by drastic measures like tossing out all vending machines and nonlunch eating. Instead, she says, children should be able to eat snacks if, for example, their class gets a late lunch at school or if they are staying late for after-school sports or other activities. The key is to give the children lots of different food choices, all of them healthy. "This is an opportunity to access kids at school," says Kubik. "They need opportunities to practice being active and eating healthily in a supportive environment." Someday, schools may even reverse one of the oldest paradigms in education. Teachers bringing in apples to influence pupils' behavior? It could happen.