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Childhood Obesity: How It Is Affected By School Cafeteria Food

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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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Amy Mimm

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