New Mexico this week announced its schools will be graded on how they tackle children's health issues. They've already eliminated junk foods, increased physical education and doubled the number of school-based heath centers statewide.

It's a push to counter childhood obesity.

Utah's tackling obesity, too. Our state was awarded $2 million over five years so public health officials can create a physical activity, nutrition and obesity program that's aimed at weight. The state ranks 47th-lowest in terms of being overweight, but we're ballooning and doing so faster than the rest of the nation, state health director Dr. David Sundwall told me in July. More than half of Utah adults are too heavy, and health officials are collecting data to see how kids tip the scales here, too.

A company recently announced it's bringing its healthier-snack vending machines to eight sites in Utah, including some secondary schools in Granite and Alpine school districts, to sell alongside current offerings. Alpine has already eliminated soda sales from machines in junior high. And a West Jordan woman recently got a $10,000 boost to her plan to vend healthy snacks at schools and businesses.

But why won't Utah, which proclaims so proudly how much it loves its children, step more decisively in the direction of healthy choices for kids? Physical education programs have diminished in recent years as districts have increased emphasis on academics. That seems like a more learning-friendly option than it actually is.

Yes, students desperately need to learn math and science and how to read and other academic subjects. But they can't learn efficiently if they're not active and fit. And physical education during the school day has been shown to not only boost fitness but to provide a break that reboots the brain so that students learn better. P.E., it turns out, enhances math and reading and other academic skills.

We've also let our desire to boost funds for academic programs make poor food decisions. Just by offering junk foods in schools, we're leading children to believe that they're OK food choices. And while junk food has a place in moderation, it doesn't enhance learning. It doesn't build healthy bodies or minds. School is one setting where it definitely does not belong.

The adults in these kids' lives know that. That's why Utah school officials not long ago considered banning junk food from public school vending machines. They decided to instead just ask local districts to report their policies on food that isn't part of the school lunch program, including that sold in vending machines. And the reason is, sadly, financial. In our state's secondary schools, vending machines bring in $3.75 million for student programs.

It's great that schools have found an additional source of money for programs. But I think it's awful that the source is so often junk food, with its strong tie to an obesity problem among children that's alarming because of its great potential to actually harm them long-term, both physically and developmentally.

And I'd be willing to bet that kids who need a snack would buy healthier treats if that's what was offered. Right now, they don't even have the option in most schools.

Inactivity and excess weight can make you sluggish. And children with serious weight problems show signs of chronic, life-shortening ills like heart disease and diabetes at much younger ages than previous generations have suffered them. Doctors are seeing youths with high blood pressure and through-the-roof cholesterol, previously unheard of in youngsters.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]