Keeping our children healthy, hunger-free

A soda and a candy bar for lunch? That’s the kind of choice too many kids make when spending their school lunch money. The result is skyrocketing obesity rates that have left nearly 30 percent of U.S. children overweight or obese. This is not the way it has to be!

In 2004, school district officials in Boston banned the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages on all school grounds in answer to the rampant obesity crisis. In making this change, the officials hoped to decrease the number of sugary beverages kids consumed during their time at school each day. What they found was that removing these beverages from schools not only kept kids from consuming them while in school, it also encouraged them to make healthier choices outside of school. 

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A recent study released by Harvard researchers tracked ninth- through 12th-graders for two years after the policy was implemented. It found that the consumption of soda and other sugary beverages fell by 3.8 ounces per day after the ban went into effect — a reduction roughly equal to 45 calories per day. 

In the fight to reverse childhood obesity, small changes like this make a big difference. That drop in calories is enough to eliminate up to 40 percent of the extra calories kids are over-consuming each day — calories that are directly tied to escalating obesity rates. 

But the most striking finding in the study is not simply that calorie consumption went down — it is that students drank less soda after the ban even when they were not at school. Based on survey findings, the percentage of students who said they did not drink sugar-sweetened beverages at all during the week nearly doubled, from 4.5 percent in 2004 before the ban to 9.8 percent in 2006 after the ban. There was no similar change in habits among students attending schools without a ban. 

The evidence is clear: The type of food and drink available in schools can have a dramatic impact on children’s habits while they’re in school, but also on their ability to make healthy choices outside of the school setting.

Many schools around the country have recognized this opportunity and are making changes to improve the food sold to students outside of official school meals. This includes food served in cafeteria á la carte lines, vending machines and school stores. In Arkansas we have made significant strides in this area by eliminating vending machines from elementary schools. In the upper grades, access to vending machines is not available until 30 minutes after the lunch period, and guidelines have been established to improve the nutrition of what is vended and sold through all school outlets. 

Unfortunately, far too many kids around the country are still being offered unhealthy options at their schools. A recent study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 44 percent of public elementary school students were regularly sold unhealthy foods like potato chips, candy and cookies at school. The study also found that, even among schools that had established a wellness policy designed to encourage healthy eating, only half had included nutritional guidelines that addressed food sold outside of school meals. There is a clear need for guidelines that will ensure that all kids, regardless of their school district, are being served food that will help them stay healthy and succeed in school. 

This December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will propose the first national set of nutrition standards for food offered by schools outside of the school meal program. By ensuring that all of the food and beverages sold in schools are in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, parents can be confident that when they send their kids to school, they will have healthy options rather than an endless supply of empty calories from candy, cookies, chips and sodas.   

The USDA is able to create these common-sense guidelines because of the smart action Congress took last year in writing and passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This bipartisan legislation provided USDA with the ability to use its expertise to develop strong standards that look out for our kids’ health. Parents, children’s health experts, educators and others will have a chance to weigh in on the agency’s proposal during the public comment period so that the final standard is one that reflects a wide range of input. 

Healthy policies inside our schools can have a significant impact on our children’s health. Congress should maintain its bipartisan support for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and stand behind the USDA’s upcoming efforts to set scientifically sound standards that will help reverse childhood obesity and promote the health of all students.  

Thompson is surgeon general for the state of Arkansas and director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity.