Childhood Obesity: How It Is Affected By School Cafeteria Food
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Childhood Obesity: How It Is Affected By School Cafeteria Food

Childhood obesity is a preventable disease, but continues to increase.

Crystal, fifteen years old, has just been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  Fourteen-year old Jesse was rushed to the hospital, suffering badly from an acute asthma attack.  Jo, only eleven years old, died last year from stomach cancer.  Each child had something in common: they were obese.  Childhood obesity is a major problem in America and it keeps getting worse.  There are many things that contribute to this epidemic and school cafeteria food is partly to blame.  Some students purchase food at school everyday and do not exercise.  They sometimes substitute lunch with snacks and sodas from vending machines in their schools.  Obesity can lead children to have difficulties later in life.  It is apparent that school cafeteria food contributes to childhood obesity and measures must be taken to cease the increasing epidemic.

There are several health risks associated with obesity.  In 1970, five percent of teenagers were obese.  By 1999, the rate had almost tripled to fourteen percent of teens (Congressman.  "Almost one in four high school students is not overweight or at risk of becoming overweight" (Johnson).  Childhood obesity has been found to cause certain adult diseases.  Effects of obesity include: type 2 diabetes mellitus, asthma, sleep apnea, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, cancer, depression, and other psychosocial disorders (Schmidt). 

Obesity can also cause joint problems, early onset puberty in females, and the opposite in males (Johnson).  Also, about 1 million children in the United States who are obese suffer from metabolic syndrome.  This makes them more likely to have type 2 diabetes and/or premature heart disease.  For a child to be diagnosed with this syndrome the following things must be present: excessive abdominal fat, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, low levels of HDL cholesterol, and high triglyceride levels in blood (Schmidt).  Unbelievably, there is more.  Obese children tend to have higher levels of atherosclerosis plaque.  This could cause a stroke or myocardial infarction (ibid).

Here is something scary: obesity is fast approaching smoking in being a leading cause of illness and eventually, death (ibid).  Imagine all the children who are obese; now try imagining the cost of their treatment.  The price can make a parent think twice about what their children eat at school.  To treat obesity and the conditions related to obesity, the cost to society is in the billions of dollars. 

What is worse is that the price will increase if nothing is done now to stop the epidemic (Schmidt).  And sadly, a major contributor to this problem is the food served to children in school cafeterias.  There is a simple solution though - cut junk food and other foods high in fat and calories from school cafeterias.  Do the same with school vending machines.  The result will be slimmer, healthier students.

The food in school cafeteria lines tempt students into buying food that pleases their taste buds, but give them empty calories and too much fat; yet they are hungry again an hour later.  This problem is larger than most people realize.  Three-fourths of schools in the United States serve foods with more than acceptable amounts of fat (Hirsch). 

This has not been left unnoticed, and actions were taken to fight the issue.  The USDA restricted fat to only thirty percent of a lunch's total calories; only a fourth of schools meet this requirement (ibid). Many schools have decided to go halfway with the requirements.  Eighty percent of schools serve combinations of foods that meet the federal guidelines and those that do not, but students do not usually make the healthiest options (ibid). 

Federal guidelines also exhibit that meals should contain more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and some low-fat meat, fish, beans, and dairy products (ibid). Most schools ignore this: "83.4% of schools offer foods or beverages other than milk a la carte.  56.2% of schools serve foods such as pizza and hamburgers. 40% serve French fries; 50% serve bread products; 60% serve baked goods that are high in fat; and only 35.5% offer low-fat or nonfat yogurt" (Congressman).  Many schools also serve food a la carte.  The a la carte lines usually have ice cream, pizza, and other fatty foods (Watson).

Students face a big transition from elementary to middle school.  During this transition it has been found that students eat sixty-eight percent more food higher in calories and drink sixty-two percent more sweetened beverages (Flores). Also, there is too much fat in school food.  An example is that there are fifteen grams of fat in one slice of pizza from Pizza Hut, a popular item in school cafeterias (Johnson).  The fatty food schools sell affects the behavior of the students.  Among the students who purchase food high in fat, concentration and grades decrease while illness complaints and disciplinary issues increase (ibid).

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Some schools have tried to serve healthier foods.  California and New York recently passed bans on school vending machines containing junk food (Hirsch). At Appleton Central Alternative High School in Wisconsin, the menu has been changed to whole grain breads, no red meat, and darker greens in the salad bar (Johnson).  What else can be done to decrease fat and empty calories in school cafeterias?  The answer is simple: serve only one hundred percent fruit juices, bottled water, and skim milk to drink; cut down on red meat; use whole grains instead of white bread; and remove the a la carte lines.

Vending machines also pose a problem in schools.  "An estimated 20,000 schools have vending machines in their corridors, common areas, and gymnasiums" (Vail).  Three-fourths of beverages and eighty-five percent of snacks provided in school vending machines have very poor nutritional quality (Simon).  The fact is that students are making too many unhealthy choices.  Several students replace school lunches with vending machine snacks (Kitchens).  Many students use the machines on a daily basis (Watson).

Most of the schools that have vending machines fill them with sugar-filled sodas and other beverages, as well as, snacks high in fat (ibid).  These snacks may include candy, ice cream, gum, and even candy-smothered popcorn (Vail).  This food has little to no nutritional value and is usually high in fat, but students do not seem to care.  They like to grab something quick from the vending machines rather than buying a complete, nutritious meal (ibid).  When students eat like this, they go to class and the fat is stored.  Over time, the students become a little more overweight each week until they are diagnosed as obese.

Soda from vending machines can ruin a child.  The increase of caffeine consumption alone can lead to insomnia and anxiety in students.  Also, one-third of students who consume high doses of caffeine regularly are hyperactive enough to be diagnosed with ADHD (ibid).  Another problem with soda in vending machines is that many students replace milk with soda in their diets.  Soda has absolutely no calcium, an essential mineral that all growing students need to have strong, healthy bones.  Replacing the calcium-rich milk for soda can cause students to have osteoporosis in later years (ibid).  Luckily, some schools have noticed these problems and have done something about them. 

The state of California has banned middle schools from selling carbonated drinks before the end of the last lunch period (Watson).  However, more must be done to fix the problems associated with school vending machines.  The best choice would be to eliminate vending machines from schools permanently.  Another option is to keep vending machines, but only put healthy beverages and snacks in them.  Just a few changes could reduce the obesity rate and improve student performance.

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More people are realizing how serious the obesity epidemic is and have taken action against it.  One example would be the Healthy Children through Better Nutrition Act of 2003.  The act was created for an important purpose: "...to improve federal nutrition policies by increasing eligible children's access to nutritious food, addressing the crisis of childhood obesity and promoting a healthy school environment" (Congressman).  Another glimmer of hope has appeared; nearly sixty percent of school districts have increased the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables that students purchase and almost half are buying more reduced-fat and low-fat foods (Hirsch).  If more actions like these took place, the childhood obesity epidemic would significantly decrease.

There are millions of children suffering from childhood obesity.  The blame cannot be placed on any one person or thing, but on everyone who has ignored the epidemic.  The thing to do now is to fix what is wrong.  Why should any more children suffer?  Just by serving healthier food in school cafeterias and vending machines, schools can make such a dramatic difference.  It is a wonder not many people have worked to bring about changes, but it is possible.  Think about the day when not a single school cafeteria serves food causing obese children and make that vision a reality.

Works Cited

Congressman Miller, George. New Legislation Targets Child Obesity, Access to School Lunch Program. California: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff, 2003.

Flores, Alfredo.  Snack Bar Temptation's Too Great for Middle Schoolers. Texas: Agricultural Research Service News, 2004.

Hirsch, J.M. Schools Stuggle to Offer Healthy Lunches. West Virginia: The Associated Press, 2003.

Johnson, Mark and John Fauber.  "Behavioral Changes Necessary to Combat Child Obesity." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 28 Jul. 2003.

Kitchens, Rhonda.  "Banning Junk Food in Schools." KPLC. 14 Apr. 2005.

Schmidt, Charles W. Obesity: A Weighty Issue for Children. ProQuest Information and Learning Company, 2005.

Simon, Michele. Back to School--Junk Food Equals Big Profits, Minus Healthy Kids. California: Pacific News Service, 2004.

Vail, Kathleen.  Insert Coins in Slot: School Vending Machines Generate Funds--And Controversy. American School Board Journal, 1999.

Watson, Aleta. "Fast Food Sold at School Lunch Means More Fat Children." San Jose Mercury News. 10 Mar. 2004.

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Comments (4)

This is a complicated issue because cafeteria's are often private companies that have a contract with schools. They pay to be in the school and it is a method of fundraising, but the company still needs to continue making a steady profit. We should either do away with external companies or perhaps only offer less healthy food options as part of combination meals (eg. grilled chicken on top of a mixed green and vegetable salad with a side of fries. Kids would then be encouraged to choose the meal with the fries although they are only a small part of a mainly healthy meal. They should also avoid serving ceasar salad - or else they may as well have a big mac! School's should buy their own vending machine's and stock them with healthier items including high protein energy bars. They should provide affordable choices in case kids forget their lunches or did not pack enough. Schools have been making money off of offering poor choices for far too long.

Great article. Unfortunately most of the kids go for the greasy fat laden stuff not only because they can, but because that is what is served at home. It would not eliminate the problem, but it would help if more parents taught their kids by example to eat well and make healthier choices.

Thanks for doing this article, good topic for discussions. voted up!

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