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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Leave No Calories Behind

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.

The American

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).