Article by Doug Balzarini
Recently found this article that I wrote back in 2003! Funny to see how my thoughts regarding youth obesity hasnâ€™t changed a whole lot in 9 yearsâ€¦my writing style has changed a lot thoughâ€¦I have a lot more original thought (i.e. I donâ€™t plagiarize as much!)
Active youth and physical activities such as after-school sports and P.E. classes used to be as common as tying your shoes or putting on your belt. However, thanks to television, video games, funding issues, poor nutrition, and busier lifestyles, these physical activity programs (and the ability to put on a belt for that matter) are much harder to come by. These factors have led to an obesity epidemic for children as young as five years old. A study by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2000 found that the percentage of overweight boys and girls has more than doubled during the past two decades. Results of the 1999 California Physical Fitness test indicate that a staggering 80% of 5th, 7th, and 9th graders tested were unable to meet the minimum standards to be considered physically fit. By high school graduation, it is likely that a youngster will have spent more time in front of the television than in school (1). The fact is that these lifestyle changes during childhood increase the risk of developing major health problems down the road.
Schools are looking to whomever they can to help with their shrinking budgets. This is where large companies with deep pockets such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi come into play. By putting vending machines in our schools these companies offer a percentage of the sales in exchange for exclusive rights and our revenue-starved school systems jump at the chance, thereby sending a hypocritical message. Schools are supposed to be teaching the importance of health, yet they are providing marketing space for everything from Coke and Pepsi to McNuggets. With soda advertisements hanging on schools walls and the desire to â€œbe coolâ€, rarely is a child going to choose a bottle of water over a can of soda. Full of sugar, empty calories and caffeine, soda is one of the main causes of the nutrition issues of American children (2).
The irony of this situation is that although sodas such as Coke and Pepsi are frequently blamed for the rise of obesity in youth, they are also the ones willing to fund the schools PE programs. An agreement involving Coke recently occurred right here in San Diego where the city school district agreed to sell only Coca-Cola beverages over the next five years. Funding from this will help schools pay for fitness programs, nutrition education, as well as other activities. District administrator, Dennis Yeatman, who supervised the deal, explained that this agreement will promote the healthier products available in the Coke machines by selling them for less. For example, water will cost $0.25 less than soda and gym locker rooms will only sell sports drinks and water. Elementary schools will only be able to sell water, sports drinks, and juice beverages (3). Yeatman says, â€œIf we abolish carbonated beverages on campus, the happiest people are the 7-Elevens and the gas stations that are close to the schools. If they donâ€™t get them on campus, the kids are going to buy them somewhere else (3).â€ Bill Erlendson of the San Jose School District agrees and is currently negotiating with soda companies in hopes for a 10-year exclusive contract worth $8-9 million. â€œIf we sell sodas and juices in school, the schools get some revenue. If we donâ€™t, then the students go down the road to the corner store. I donâ€™t think we would be adding much to soda consumption (5).â€ But research supports the fact that there is both an increase in obesity and soda consumption raising the following question: How does making soda more readily available to children not contribute to the problem of childhood obesity?
Not all schools are allowing vending machines through their doors. Many school superintendents, such a Paul Vallas of Philadelphia, are proposing that soda is banned in their schools entirely. High schools soft drink sales are banned by the nationâ€™s two largest school districts, New York and Los Angeles. I feel that these schools, along with a number of research programs, are on the correct and healthy path. One such program is â€˜Get Kids In Actionâ€™, a $4 million program directed by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and underwritten by Gatorade, targets physicians, community organizations, and families in a drive to make kids more physically active (7).
Reluctantly, I will admit there seems to be some positives of the Coke-funded programming. However, it will ultimately be up to parents, teachers, physicians, and fitness professionals to impress upon children the importance of proper nutrition. At Childrenâ€™s Hospital in the Milwaukee area, Ramin Alemzadeh, director of the hospitalâ€™s diabetes program, tells parents that a few modest changes â€“ eliminating soda, juices and processed sugar treats, and going for an evening walk â€“ would produce significant weight loss in obese children. Unfortunately, he says parents seldom follow those recommendations (4). Additional inquiries about the food programs and policies in schools are needed along with a push to have junk food and soda vending machines removed from school grounds. According to a report by the American School Foodservice Association, published in October 20, 2000, issue of Time for Kids, the top five school lunch foods are: 1-Pizza, 2-Chocolate Chip Cookies, 3-Corn, 4-French Fries, and 5-Chicken Nuggets (6).
Not being currently involved in a school setting, I am unable to witness this epidemic firsthand, but it seems money has blinded us from the bigger picture, which is proper health and education for our future. We need to think about the quality of life of our nationâ€™s youth. Commercially saturated schools do not convince me of a positive learning environment. These schools mentioned seem to have similar funding and nutrition education issues. A balance is needed between health concerns and the revenue supplied and generated by these large companies. When I think of a solution I will let you know. Iâ€™m thirsty; I think Iâ€™ll get aâ€¦glass of water.
ACE Youth Fitness book, Faigenbaum & Westcott, 2001
Philadelphia Daily News, July 17, 2003
San Diego Union Tribune, July 10, 2003
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 7, 2003
Washington Post, March 23, 1999
Food, Fun nâ€™ Fitness, Friesz, 2002
USA Today, July 20, 2003