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By Selena Stevens


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"As the current population of overweight and obese youth move toward adulthood, unless trends in body weight are reversed, the quality of life related to health for Kentuckians will become even more dismal."

--Janet Tietyen,
lead researcher and food and nutrition specialist with the UK Cooperative Extension Service

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March 4, 2002 (Lexington, Ky.) -- Parents and communities working diligently to help obese children lose weight and be healthy may not be getting the help they need from their schools. A recent research report from the University of Kentucky shows that 84 percent of food sold in school vending machines in Kentucky is "junk food:" soft drinks, candy, fried foods and pastries.

Of the 339 schools responding to the survey, 97 percent of high schools, 88 percent of middle schools and 44 percent of elementary schools reported that students have access to vending machines. The report also suggests that students may be eating breakfast, lunch and snacks from vending machines.

Kentucky regulations require schools to make vending machines inaccessible to students until one-half hour after lunch is served.

Nearly 6 percent of responding schools said the vending machines are available before school begins in the morning, throughout the day and during lunch periods. After lunch, 54 percent offer access, and 59 percent allow after-school access.

"We're not saying that the schools are bad," said Janet Tietyen, lead researcher on the project and a food and nutrition specialist with the UK Cooperative Extension Service. "We're saying that if people in the community are working to decrease obesity in our children, we have to include our schools in the initiative."

According to the report, the percentage of overweight children in the United States has nearly doubled and the percentage of overweight adolescents has nearly tripled during the past two decades.

Data shows Kentucky children to be more overweight and obese than their national counterparts. One indicator, children enrolled in the Kentucky Women, Infants and Children supplemental feeding program, documented an increase of 19 percent in overweight children from 1995 to 2000. Another report showed Kentucky adults to be the least health of all Americans.

"As the current population of overweight and obese youth move toward adulthood, unless trends in body weight are reversed, the quality of life related to health for Kentuckians will become even more dismal," Tietyen said.

The UK report also noted that food was used as a reward for good behaviors, attendance and academic achievement in 81 percent of the schools. Pizza was the highest reward, 83 percent of schools used it, along with candy (64 percent) and soft drinks (46 percent). This teaches children bad messages about food, Tietyen said.

"Children spend a lot of time in schools and are afforded a great deal of freedom in selecting snack foods," Tietyen said. "Schools can and should provide an environment that exemplifies a healthy relationship with food."

While many school officials indicated that vending machines were provided to meet student demand, the study noted that 83 percent of schools maintain contracts with soft drink companies, which provide a source of revenue. On average, Kentucky schools made just over $6,000 in revenue from vending machines last year. The profit was used in a variety of ways, including purchasing supplies and instructional materials, for student awards and incentives, and sponsoring field trips and guest speakers. The contracts also sometimes afforded schools free soft drinks, donations and other incentives from the companies.

Tietyen and Anita Courtney, director of health promotion at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, said healthy alternatives to junk food can and should be offered through school vending.

"It is short-sighted to exploit our children's health to generate revenue when we will be paying for it in many ways in the future," Courtney said. "We can offer our children healthy, appealing alternatives, and in fact, West Virginia schools have done so successfully."

The report also noted another healthy vending success story in Madison, Wis., where machines exclusively vending milk were placed in schools. The schools report initial sales to be "surprisingly strong."

The report was commissioned by the Coalition on Type 2 Diabetes and Overweight in Children, headed by Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, and was presented to legislators in Frankfort in late January. The Kentucky General Assembly is considering legislation, which would set nutritional guidelines for food sold in school vending machines and stores, require more fiber in school lunches, and increase mandated nutritional training for school food-service directors.

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