SALT LAKE CITY — With childhood obesity on the rise, Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, is pushing a bill that would force schools to offer only healthful beverages in vending machines.
"We need to start looking at prevention instead of remediation," Jones said.
But getting kids to consume healthy products may be easier said than done.
Three years ago, Bountiful Junior High School installed the very type of vending machine Jones favors — no soda and plenty of fruit juice. But during lunchtime Friday, kids wouldn't touch the drink machine. And the snack machine, now full of baked chips and granola bars, went largely ignored. When it was used, a ninth-grader bought the most sugary item available: S'mores Pop-Tarts.
Jones launched SB49 after being approached by numerous state organizations that are focusing on issues such as diabetes and childhood obesity. Her bill solely targets beverages, but the action is part of a larger national trend as schools have become battlegrounds in the fight against obesity. All foods are in question.
First Lady Michelle Obama announced last week her campaign to combat childhood obesity, calling it a major epidemic and a great threat to America's health and economy.
A public school in Connecticut offers fresh local foods and includes menu items such as chicken stir fry with zucchini and fresh peas.
In San Francisco, a new company run by two Berkeley grads supplies a school lunch menu that features foods with no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors.
The problem with many such initiatives is that sometimes even the best intentions aren't enough. The vending machines at Bountiful Junior High contain foods that have plenty of sugar and fat despite being deemed "healthful."
An 8 ounce can of Welch's fruit punch in the school's vending machine has no fat but 210 calories and 50 grams of sugar. A can of Mountain Dew has caffeine, 170 calories, zero fat and 46 grams of sugar. A can of Coca-Cola has caffeine, 140 calories, no fat and 39 grams of sugar.
Jones' bill wouldn't allow more than 120 calories for 8 ounces of fruit juice. The bill does allow diet sodas in secondary schools.
On the snack end, S'mores Pop-Tarts have 400 calories, 90 fat calories and 10 grams of fat for two pastries. A Snickers bar has 280 calories, 130 fat calories and 14 grams of fat.
Jones points out that Bountiful Junior High's options are at least more healthful than a soda and Snickers.
"Why should we provide those unhealthful things in our school vending machines?" she said. "If students think it's gross, they are free to bring whatever they want at lunchtime."
Bountiful Junior High ninth-grader Ryan Lewis, 14, brought a Mountain Dew from home. He doesn't much care for the vending machine options at his school. "A candy bar and a soda would be nice," he said.
Steve Lindsay, healthy lifestyles supervisor for Davis School District and former principal of Bountiful Junior High, axed the junk food from the vending machines three years ago. Parents were thrilled; students were angry.
"It was the best thing I ever did," Lindsay said.
Within the first year, teachers said they noticed a positive difference in student behavior. "Between the sugar and the caffeine, those kids get pretty wound up," he said.
Teens say it's ridiculous to stock foods no one wants. Jones says, "Since when do we allow children to make those decisions? Our schools are there as institutions of learning. They are not there to meet the demands of young citizens."
At East High School on Tuesday, students flocked to the vending machines during lunch hour. The school has four soda machines and two candy and chip machines in the commons area alone.
"You have to have things kids will eat," said Mary Lane Grisley, assistant principal at East High.
Adam Williams, 14, a ninth-grader at East High, said Jones' bill "is a dumb idea." He has a penchant for Orange Crush soda.
"A lot of kids need caffeine to help them focus throughout the day," pointed out James Gibb, 14, an East High ninth-grader.
Bountiful Junior High vending machine sales have decreased up to 60 percent since switching to healthy choices. Principal Brent Stephens said the school makes less than $150 per month, while some schools make around $400. Bountiful Junior High uses the money for assembly speakers and dances.
However, the school won a $1,000 grant for implementing healthy lifestyles programs. This week, some of the funding went to purchase yogurt, fresh pineapple and string cheese for the kids to snack on. Some of the money is going to buy sports equipment for the kids to use during lunch.
Charlee Guild, 14, an eighth-grader at Bountiful Junior High, said money has gone down because most teenagers like to eat junk food.
"Ding Dongs! We want chocolate and whipped cream!" he said, adding that a mix of healthy snacks and junk food would please everyone.
Jones disagrees. "Those things that are sold have to be healthy. Our kids will be the winners," she said.
HB49 is scheduled to be discussed Friday in the Senate Education Committee.
To read the bill, go to le.state.ut.us/asp/interim/Commit.asp?Year=2010&Com=SSTEDU.
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