For years, many school administrators, hard pressed to find extra funds to finance student activities and supplement needed classroom supplies, have allowed the installation of vending machines which dispense soft drinks, candy and a variety of junk foods.
The machines may well be significant money makers, but it is a sad and
ill thought out bargain which gambles recklessly with the health of
young students. For the corporations which produce and distribute the
sugar-laden soft drinks and snacks saturated with fat, it is a
profitable market which also gives them an early opportunity to hook
young students on junk food. For these junk food pushers it is a case
of leaving “no calories behind.”
The folly and danger of putting
the health of students on the line to finance school activities,
however, is beginning to attract some long overdue attention. The
Education Committee of the New Jersey Assembly has approved legislation
which would ban junk food vending machines from all public elementary
and middle schools in the state. Schools would be allowed only to have
machines which dispense whole grain foods, juice, milk and water and
similar products. In addition, the legislation would eliminate from
school cafeterias any product that is made up of 35 percent sugar or
contains more than 8 grams of fat.
A co-sponsor of the
legislation, Assemblyman Craig Stanley, said, “public schools need to
be a place where both healthy minds and bodies are created. Sugary
fat-laden foods have no place in our schools.” The bill now heads to
the floor for a vote of the New Jersey Assembly, and it’s a safe bet
that soft drink manufacturers, the candy companies and the junk food
merchants will have their lobbyists out in full force to block the
Hopefully, the medical community and health groups will counter the junk food pushers.
there is abundant evidence that obesity, fueled by unhealthy diets and
excessive consumption of soft drinks and fatty foods, is a major
national health problem.
The Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) estimates that the obesity rate for children and
adolescents has more than doubled in the last 30 years. In 1999, an
estimated 61 percent of adults in the United States were overweight.
The report by the Surgeon General found that at least 13 percent of
young children and adolescents were seriously overweight.
by the CDC and other health research organizations suggest that obesity
in the United States occurs at higher rates among African Americans and
Hispanic Americans than among white Americans, while Asian Americans
have relatively low levels of obesity. Some of the highest rates were
among the American Indian population. In Arizona, for example, 80
percent of females and 67 percent of the males were found to be
overweight among the native American population.
Obesity Association says that factors influencing the disparities in
levels of obesity among racial and ethnic groups include cultural
differences involving dietary choices, physical activity and the
acceptance of excess weight among some groups. Sedentary lifestyles,
particularly among middle age and older citizens, contribute
significantly to overweight and obesity.
Whatever the causes and
the distribution of obesity among different population groupings,
according to a 2001 report by the U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher,
the cost of obesity—both in terms of lives and health care costs—are
staggering. “Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable
disease and death as cigarette smoking,” Satcher predicted.
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates
conservatively that 300,000 U. S. deaths annually are associated with
obesity and being overweight. This means that obesity is catching up
rapidly with the 400,000 annual deaths associated with cigarette
smoking. The total direct and indirect costs attributed to obesity
amounted to $117 billion in 2000, HHS says.
There is a long list
of obesity-related diseases including diabetes, cancer, heart disease
and hypertension. The Surgeon General has warned that overweight and
obesity have the potential to “wipe out the gains the nation has made
in areas such as heart disease, cancer and other chronic health
The New Jersey Assembly’s Education Committee has
taken a gutsy position in sounding the alarm about the dangers of junk
food and its close link to obesity. More importantly, they have been
willing to step forward with specific legislation which would ban the
junk from the schools. The New Jersey legislators recognize that the
effort to reduce obesity is a community responsibility.
As former Surgeon General Satcher said in his “Call to Action To Prevent Overweight and Obesity” three years ago:
can help when it comes to health promotion and disease prevention. When
there are no safe places for children to play, or for adults to walk,
jog or ride a bike, that’s a community responsibility. When school
lunchrooms or workplace cafeterias don’t offer healthy or appealing
food choices, that is a community responsibility. When new or expectant
parents are not educated about the benefits of breast-feeding, that’s a
community responsibility. And when we don’t require daily physical
education in our schools that’s a community responsibility.”
Nader is the author of: The Good Fight : Declare Your Independence and
Close the Democracy Gap (Harper Collins Books).