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Radio Show

A vending machine at the state Capitol.

Obesity and Food in Schools

Theme: Community Health
Air Date: 1/16/06
Producer: Daniel Costello
Description: Documentary on the debate over the connection between what kids eat in school and obesity.


Host Intro: The words 'child' and 'diet' uttered close together cause a cringe reaction in many people.  But because of changes in lifestyle habits over the past few decades, paying closer attention to diet has become more important for preventing health problems in childhood, especially obesity.  The statistics are alarming: the rate of childhood obesity in the United States doubled over the past twenty years.  It has tripled for adolescents.  The increase in obesity is so pronounced that the Centers for Disease Control declared it an epidemic.  There isn't a consensus on how to approach the problem, but momentum seems to be building around the country to take action.  KGNU's Daniel Costello reports on efforts here in Colorado to use better school nutrition to combat childhood obesity.

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Full Text:

Host Intro:  The words 'child' and 'diet' uttered close together cause a cringe reaction in many people.  But because of changes in lifestyle habits over the past few decades, paying closer attention to diet has become more important for preventing health problems in childhood, especially obesity.  The statistics are alarming: the rate of childhood obesity in the United States doubled over the past twenty years.  It has tripled for adolescents.  The increase in obesity is so pronounced that the Centers for Disease Control declared it an epidemic.  There isn't a consensus on how to approach the problem, but momentum seems to be building around the country to take action.  KGNU's Daniel Costello reports on efforts here in Colorado to use better school nutrition to combat childhood obesity.

Narration: Many health experts agree that kids in school would benefit from better nutrition.  Before trying to improve students diets you have to know what they're eating now.  Finding a norm in students diets isn't so easy.  What students eat at school is almost as varied as their tastes in music or clothes.  High school student Coral is a self-declared health nut.  

Actuality:   But I'm probably going to go home and have a salad with garbanzo beans, feta cheese, and sesame baked tofu that I made last night.  It's going to be really dank.  And oh balsamic vinaigrette and raspberry dressing.

Narration:  Aaron went to Einstein's today.

Actuality:  And what are you eating here?  Poppy seed Bagel with cream cheese, a chocolate chip cookie, and a coke.  Do you think this is a nutritious lunch? I really doubt it.  It seems like the bagel and cream cheese is reasonable.  That's okay... its not like McDonald's, so...

Narration: Still others take the lunch break, but don't eat.  [Music starts low, rolls under.]Chris likes to hang out and play his guitar during lunch.  [Music up, roll a few seconds to end of song.]

Actuality:   I guess that's what I do at lunch. [laughter]  Normally do you go somewhere and get some food?  No, normally like if we're not just kinda hanging around here sometimes we go down to Wild Oats, sometimes we just kinda go hang out in the cemetery for a little while you know and just relax.  Pretty much lunchtime not too much food is being eaten, but we're still having fun.

Narration: Sometimes lunch is just a snack from the vending machine.  Jorge often goes home for lunch, but today he is just having a bag of hot Cheetos.

Actuality:  Can you tell me what your name is?  Jorge.  And I'm eating hot Cheetos with my homeboys.  What is that there?  Hot Cheetos., crunchy...  Hot Cheetos, okay...  Yeah.  I don't know, we're just having a good time.  So that'll be your whole lunch for today?  Yeah, just hot Cheetos. So, you don't get too hungry?  Naw, just when I get home.  I eat when I get home.

Narration:   Sometimes students want to eat a good meal, but they have something else to do during the lunch period, so the vending machine is their only option.

Actuality:  [Vending machine sound: dollar goes in, change, bag drops, pulls bag out.]  Do you mind telling me what you got?  Animal crackers.  Is that what you're eating for lunch or do you have something else?  No, that's my lunch...  I have some sesame sticks in the car, too.  That's enough to keep you for the day?  Nope, it definitely is not.  So why aren't you eating something more substantial?  I don't know, I don't have time. I have to practice for a test.

Narration:  At first glance, students may not seem to be very concerned about eating well.  But when prodded, many show that they are aware of what?s healthy and what?s not.  Dorian has witnessed some pretty bad eating habits.

Actuality:  Like there's this one kid in my class... SO much chocolate.  Every day.  Hyperactive as hell.  You know he's going to be a diabetic in like ten years, if he continues.  Does he show a weight issue from that?  He's super skinny.  I don't know I think its the fact that he's a fourteen year old and has a fast metabolism.  I don't know... when his metabolism slows down he's going to be a porky motherf___er.

Actuality: This is not just a school problem, its not just a home problem, its not even just a nutritional problem.

Narration:  Dr. Reginald Washington is one of the nation?s leading experts on childhood obesity.  He recently helped the Denver public Schools develop a plan to improve student nutrition and physical activity at the schools.  He says what kids are eating in school is important to their health, but so are a lot of other things.

Actuality: Its a perfect storm of obesity.  Its part due to nutrition, its part due to lack of physical activity or an opportunity to become physically active, its part fast foods, its part too much television and computers, its part too readily available convenience items so that you don't even have to get out of the couch to change the T.V. station anymore, its all of those things combined.

Narration:  Getting caught in the perfect storm of bad habits might not sink a person today, but Dr. Washington says that it often causes serious problems that don't show up until later.

Actuality: If you look at the leading causes of death in this country, most of them can be traced at a higher risk level due to obesity.  Heart disease, stroke, most forms of cancer, can be traced to being more common in an obese person than in a non-obese person.  That's not one hundred percent, certainly non-obese people have strokes and hypertension and all the rest, but if you look at the incidence of those who are overweight, versus those who are not the incidence is higher.

Narration:   Many people who have been working in schools for a long time say that when it comes to nutrition, students' habits are bad--and getting worse.  Colorado State Senator Deanna Hanna was a school nurse for thirty-two years.  

Actuality: Well I would see young children coming to school with a can of pop, or some other product that was most inappropriate for breakfast and ask them what they had for breakfast and that's what they had for breakfast.  A can of pop and a bar of candy.

Narration:  While you can't point to a can of pop as the smoking gun causing all obesity or all health problems, many health experts agree that it is one of the causes.  Many educators will tell you that a poor diet doesn't just affect the body, but that it also affects learning.  Senator Hanna saw this when she was a nurse.

Actuality: They?re so hyper when they get a sugar hit, they can't settle down and listen, they?re always in trouble and then when they crash from the sugar high then they're not listening they're sleeping.  Or they're agitated, because when you're hungry you don't feel good.

Narration:  Even if you got rid of sugary snacks and pop, being hyperactive at certain times is a natural part of childhood.  Many people would argue that there isn't much that can or should be done to alter kids behavior, but Dr. Washington says steering a child away of the perfect storm of bad habits is best started as early as possible, especially when it comes to obesity.

Actuality: If you have an obese adolescent we know that the carryover of obesity from adolescence to adulthood is quite high.  Then we can assume that the majority of obese adolescents will become obese adults.  We also know that its much more difficult to treat obesity once it has occurred, so it would make sense to prevent the onset of obesity in childhood so that you will not have to try to treat obesity in an adult, because we all know that's very unlikely to be successful.

Narration:  Dr. Washington believes that schools should have more exercise programs plus better nutrition across the board, from better foods in the standard school lunch to less soda and chips in the vending machines.  But for some activists, there's one culprit worse than all the rest?the vending machines.  Senator Hanna says that a lot of the junk she saw kids eating came from the school vending machines.  Her experiences in the schools are what motivated her to become a sponsor of a bill last session to require that fifty percent of food in school vending machines throughout Colorado be healthy food.  The bill was promoted by a group called the Committee for Progress in School Nutrition.  They brought in breakfast for state legislators and staff one morning last spring.

Actuality: My name is Terry Curran and I'm with Committee for Progress in School Nutrition and we're here at the State Capitol today and we are working on reform for school nutrition.  We're educating the legislators here today at the Capitol and feeding them a healthy breakfast of apples and fruit and muffins that are sweetened with brown sugar and yogurt and try to represent what a good breakfast might be.

Narration:  Terry Curran has two children in elementary school.  When she brought her kids to school on CSAP test day, she was disappointed by what the school was providing for breakfast.  She brought that food in to the Capitol breakfast to contrast it with what her group was providing.

Actuality:  At this table over here the foods are some chocolate doughnuts, some Trix cereal, and a sugar-type muffin.  And then some orange juice, which is actually one hundred percent orange juice but when coupled with these other products pretty much makes a full-sugar breakfast.  And I think the idea was that the kids would get a nutritious breakfast and have food in their stomach before they took the state test.  But looking at these products I'm questioning whether that was a good choice for what should be in children when they're taking tests because it probably didn't help their concentration.

Narration:  Some of the legislators were receptive to the committee's message, but many just listened a little as they grabbed something and headed off to work.  Although the obesity rate in children has been increasing over the past few decades, part of the lack of concern may be because junk food can be found everywhere.  It also takes some effort sometimes to determine whether something is good or not.  Down in the Capitol lunchroom, Terry Curran looks at what is in the vending machines.

Actuality:  So we're looking at the vending machines here in the Capitol.  My first thoughts from just even looking at the vending machines is that they are one hundred percent soda.  There isn't any water, there isn't any juice.  A lot of the guidelines that were talking about for our kids in schools, they wouldn't be complying here at all because they have nothing but soda pop.  But we'll move along here to the other vending machine.  

We have two vending machines again, that are offering food choices.  There might be a couple of choices here, we've got some popcorn, we've got some chips.  But lets see... Well, if I was really hungry.  The choice I'd probably make would be they actually have a yogurt apple nut mix.  I'm going to make that selection and see what we have here... okay.  We're looking... the ingredient list is pretty long.  It's incredibly long, actually... for a product of this type.  That always one of the red flags.  If you notice also on the label here there's four point five grams of saturated fat.  That is also quite high.  Even though this is being offered as a healthy choice, this would not fall within the guidelines of the products we would want to put in the vending machines in the schools.  

I'm kind of a fan of the Boulder Chips, and I'd like you to take a quick look at those chips and see what you think.  Well, let me take a look at the label.  So the ingredients are potatoes, may contain one or more of the following: sunflower oil and safflower oil, and salt.  So that's a good sign.  And then the total fat is eight grams, so that falls within the regulation, because its eleven percent of the total calories and saturated fat is only one gram, and that's eight percent.  

Would you be willing to try one of these?  Sure, I love Boulder chips.  I actually do let my kids eat Boulder chips, so... [crunching of chip...]  And they're good... and you can taste it... you can taste the potato, its got a nice texture, it tastes good.

Narration:  Supporters of the bill ran into resistance because of a major issue that perennially plagues schools?money.  Schools boards are already pinching pennies, and they don't want to risk losing the profits from the vending machines.  Jane Urschel  works on legislative issues for the Colorado Association of School Boards, which supports local control of vending machines.

Actuality:  The irony is that the profit from vending machines and other kinds of opportunities like that have gone for activities.  Band uniforms, extra curricular events, sponsoring activities.  And that's the other side of the equation of good health.  So, you kind of have to look at where will the money come for those activities.  Will there be money for that.

Narration:  Senator Hanna says that this kind of argument is nonsense and that selling junk food can't be justified by the good programs that the profits support.

Actuality:  A lot of the vending machines are tied to buying exercise equipment.  My goodness gracious.  Are we going to feed kids sugar and then buy equipment to exercise to get rid of the obesity?  What a dichotomy of hypocrisy!

Narration:  Activists say that it isn't such a black and white issue, money or no money, and that it is a matter of education about alternative ways to raise additional funds.  Terry Curran, of the committee for progress in school nutrition.

Actuality:  Schools are in need of funding, and a lot of these vendors have been there ready to give these schools funding.  It has given the schools an opportunity for lets say easy money.  And we think that they need a little motivation to help them realize that there are alternatives.  And with bills like 197 it requires only fifty percent healthy products in the vending machines.  

Narration:  Curran adds that her group has looked at other districts that have switched to healthier vending machine foods and says that they are still able to sell food and make a profit.  But funding issues are not the only objection to regulating what is sold in school vending machines.

Actuality:  I don't think that the government has any business in the raising of children in terms of prescribing or dictating what they should eat or how much exercise they should get.

Narration:  Senator Nancy Spence was a school board member for thirteen years.  She was one of the main opponents of the bill to require healthy foods in vending machines.  She says that decisions about students' diets should be made at the local level.

Actuality:  School districts can make those decisions for themselves.  They can monitor the behavior, the eating habits, the academic habits, the sleep habits of kids.  And they know what their needs are when they come to school.  Let school boards decide.  Let school principals have some ability to control the decisions that are made with regard to what foods are served in their lunch lines and what foods are served in their vending machines.

Actuality:  Well, you have to remember that about half of the money that funds our schools in Colorado is from our state income taxes that all Coloradoans pay so we have a very strong state interest in what occurs.

Narration:  Jared Polis is a philanthropist and is also Vice-Chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education.  His foundation organized the Committee for Progress in School Nutrition that lobbied for the healthy food in school vending machines bill.

Actuality:  And absent this sort of rule and perhaps additional types of rules regarding nutrition, we have had a surge in Type II diabetes and we have had a surge in obesity, and these are things that we all pay for in the long term through increased health care costs and more difficulty for the child to continue their education.

Narration:  Regardless of who should decide, there is some agreement that there should be limits to commercial activity in schools. Jared Polis.  

Actuality:  Schools could probably make a lot of money selling liquor and cigarettes but we're not about to let them do that.  There's a balance between what's consistent with the educational outcomes that we seek in our public education system and areas that they can concentrate on to raise money.

Narration:  While beer is an example of something that clearly crosses the line for fundraising in schools, Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of School Boards doubts that vending machines do. She says that it is not so easy to decide when the limit is reached.  

Actuality:  Well I think that when they see that there is a detriment.  They for instance don't have beer companies sponsoring functions and events and so forth, and you don't see a beer company's label on a stadium.  But that is a tough line to draw.  School districts have been told in this state and nationwide you need to be more entrepreneurial in how you get your revenues. Quit coming back to the legislature.  We don't have the money.  And that's very true.  The legislature's hands have been tied for a long time.

Narration:  Even though it's obvious that no district would try to sell beer or cigarettes, complete flexibility in fundraising is not a choice Jared Polis feels the state should give to school districts, even when it comes to junk food.

Actuality:  Folks that represent school boards might believe that they should have that right, we as a state have said no.  And of course other health items are simply an extension of that.  While soda is not nearly as dangerous as cigarettes to a young person, it clearly has a lot of negative impact on both their health and also frequently their attitude and preparation for learning with a high caffeine and sugar content, and we're saying that we need to look at them in a way like we look at other dangerous substances and make sure the students have the option of having healthier dietary options at school.

Narration:  If students are offered more healthy snacks in the vending machines, will they really buy and eat them?  When asked about healthy snacks, many high school students have no doubt in their mind about the answer.  

Actuality:  Someone has proposed a law that would require that the food that would be in these vending machines half of it would have to be healthy food.  No!  [laughs]  Noooo!  So like...  Nobody... it'd be old...  

Narration: At most schools, students have lots of options for getting their snack food fix.  They can bring in whatever they want from home, and they can also leave campus and go to nearby convenience stores.  Jorge, a high school student who we heard talking about his hot Cheetos earlier, is also a dedicated pop drinker.

Actuality:  Do you drink a lot of pop?  Yeah.  Yeah, I love pop.  So what would you think if they completely got rid of it.  Ah, nah.  Sh... I would be pissed.  Cause I mean... I enjoy drinking pop all the time... at school.  And so if you couldn't get it here at school would you just...  I'd go to the store.  

Narration: From these reactions, you might fear a revolt if healthy food was put in the vending machines.  But it has already happened at some schools.  The Denver Public Schools have set new standards for food sold at school to make it healthier.  Jorge's hot Cheetos were actually baked rather than fried, and are lower in fat than regular Cheetos.  At New Vista, a small high school in Boulder, Principal Rona Wilensky decided that since Boulder's middle schools were only allowing healthy food in the vending machines, then her school should too.  

Actuality:  It was an autocratic decision on my part.  I almost never make that kind of decision, but I decided that I needed to be the adult, the mom, the parent, and say no, we're not going to have junk food.  You can eat it here.  You can bring anything you want into the building, but I am not going to be a pimp for junk food.  

Narration:  Student reactions shared with me at New Vista were mixed, a bit more negative than positive.  Some will complain regardless of what is available. [5 sec.]

Actuality:  What is your name?  My name is Peaches O'Reilly.  These vending machines are kinda ridiculous, honestly.  There isn't really anything in them.  So what is your least favorite thing in these vending machines?  What is the most ridiculous item that is in here?  Yogurt raisins.  That's gnarly.  I mean, chocolate raisins I can understand.  But, damn.   [vending sound]

Actuality:  I really love the fact that they put good food in the vending machines.  I'm one of the only people who don't complain about it.  I really like not processed food, so I eat from the vending machine all the time.  I don't know why people bitch.  It's a lot better than last year's.  I'd much rather have Pirate's Bootys than Lay's potato chips or something.

Narration:   That was Coral, who was headed home for the garbanzo bean salad earlier.  Pirate's Bootys, by the way, are a lower fat flavored popcorn.  Even though students were not wildly enthusiastic, Principal Wilensky says that the changeover at New Vista wasn't that big of a deal.  

Actuality:  Some students cared a lot, and some students didn't care at all.  When I went around and did my usual advisory visits it was one of the things kids complained about and I said get over it.  [laughs]  You know... and its died down.  They whine about it occasionally, but they know that if they bring M&M's from home I'm not going to take it away from them, it they bring soda from home I'm not going to take it away from them.  They still get to eat what they want.  

Narration:  Price was the main complaint that students shared about the vending machine choices at New Vista, but Principal Wilensky says that there has been no loss of revenue from the vending machines since the changeover.  Students are buying the healthier snacks?maybe because they are the only convenient option.  But then sometimes the reasons for choosing something are more abstract.

Actuality:  [change in, bottle falls]  Can you tell me what you got there?  Vitamin water.  And, what's that?  Its water with vitamins.  Do you like that stuff?  Yeah, it's pink!  

Narration:  With all the habits that can lead to obesity, and all of the choices that students can make should the quality of the vending machine food be the center of attention?  Senator Spence, who opposed the bill, says vending machines are not such a big deal, and that it's a matter of self-control.

Actuality:  Quite frankly I don't think a bag of potato chips or a can of soda is necessarily bad for a child.  As adults we enjoy junk food from time to time.  I think kids need a certain amount of sugar and a certain amount of fat in order to grow into healthy adolescents.  I don't think all junk food is necessarily bad for kids.  They need to just know when they've crossed the line in terms of how much money they are putting into purchasing of foods that aren't as nutritious.  

Narration:  When it comes to feeding students, the circumstances at schools across the metro area vary widely.  Larger schools can be much more complex to manage, and have a larger diversity of student tastes to satisfy.  At schools with open campuses, many students drive or walk somewhere else and eat whatever they want.  These choices reduce the impact of vending machines in these schools.  Vending machines can also be less of a focal point at schools where students have less spending money.

Actuality:  [fade up hall sound, hall bell rings, roll hall sound under]

Narration:   At West High School in Denver, the bell signals the start of their only lunch period.  With between three and four hundred students eating in the cafeteria every day, it is an elaborate operation.  More than eighty percent of West's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.  Of course, free and reduced price lunches do not include anything from the vending machines.  West's food service keeps track of it all with a pin pad attached to the cash register.  

Actuality:  [sound of keypad and register, banter with students]

Narration:  As part of an effort to keep its kids from eating just junk, West has renovated its cafeteria.  It?s working hard to keep the students satisfied.  Shelly Allen is an area supervisor for the Denver Public Schools' food service department.

Actuality:  We don't want them going down the street, we want them to eat here, and the only way we're going to do that is offer them choice and offer them variety.

Narration:  West does have a lot of choices.  Debbie Gallegos works in West's cafeteria.

Actuality:  Today we have smothered burritos, we've got nachos grande, corn, rice, churros.  They've also got fresh watermelon, frozen juice bars, they have their choice.  And also in this other room we've got hot sandwiches and fries, fresh fruit, in this other room we've got cold stuff which is grab and goes, chefs salads, stuff like that.  And then back here will be pizza and salads over there.  So they got six places they can get food.

Narration:   Those choices may not be as healthy as Coral's garbanzo bean salad, but lots of choices help to keep the kids at school for lunch. Shelly Allen, the supervisor in the food service, says that's a step in the right direction, because then they?re eating something from cafeteria line instead of from the burger stand or a convenience store.  Denver's food service carefully monitors the food it serves to see that it meets recently improved nutritional and quality standards.  But it is not just good food that is important.  Shelly Allen says choice is also important for other reasons.

Actuality:  We would rather them go to lunch and sit out here on the courtyard than to go across the street into the parks and stuff.  So we want to be able to offer them whatever it is that they want to be able to take it so that they can be outside.

Narration:  Lots of choices reduce the excuses for leaving campus, and therefore the possibilities that students will succumb to temptations off school grounds.

Actuality:  Because they?re on the school property, once they leave the school property a lot of times they don't want to come back.  So at least this way they are here, and we want their business.

Narration:  Student safety and reduction of truancy are important issues, and also trying to provide food choices that reduce health risks such as obesity.  In fact, the efforts at West High are the beginning of big changes underway throughout the Denver Public Schools.  Last year, the Denver Public Schools undertook a comprehensive examination of all of its policies regarding nutrition and physical activity in the school district.  Obesity expert Dr. Washington was one of the leaders of the commission.  They set standards for fat and sugar content of all foods as well as portion size in regular school lunches.  They also recommended consistent physical education across the district and through all grade levels.  Dr. Washington says these steps are a great start for Denver, and thinks that other districts should voluntarily take the same comprehensive approach.  But he also thinks that local efforts need the support of larger governmental entities to make a dent in the obesity trend nationwide.

Actuality:  I think if you look at what we've done with other national health issues, we didn't tell each individual county or city you can decide if people wear seat belts or not.  We didn't decide as an individual city or county if you can sell cigarettes to children under eighteen years of age, we didn't decide as a city or county who should receive immunizations.  And those efforts have all been successful only because we've approached them in what I think is a logical way and not leaving it up to individuals in these instances to make these decisions.

Narration:  Back at the Capitol, those wanting to require healthy foods in school vending machines were dealt a blow at the very end of the session.  Senator Hanna's bill passed through the Senate, but was defeated on the House floor.  Last year was the second year that it was introduced.  After the bill's defeat last year, Senator Hanna vowed that she would bring it back again in 2006.

Actuality:   I think its too important of a bill not to reintroduce.  I think we need to make a statement at the state level.  Definitely we need to bring that bill back next year.  Our children's health is too important not to.

Narration:   The lobbying group for the beverage industry did not take a position on the bill last year, but in August the American Beverage Association came out with voluntary guidelines for schools that they say meet the standards set in Senator Hanna's bill.  Dick Brown is Executive Director of the Colorado Beverage Association.  He says that when given good information, schools can make the best decisions for their situation.

Actuality:   Local officials have the first choice of whether or not they have any products on their school campuses at all.  From there, it should be their prerogative working as elected officials at the local level to be the most responsive to their communities on what if anything that they have available on their campuses.

Narration:  He says that they are not opposed to guidelines for schools, as long as the schools are given the final say.  

Actuality:   We would prefer to see a strong role for local officials.  Now if that needs to be in a broader context, or a broader framework, to help those school districts get the information and have what they have what they consider is the authority that they need to decide what is on their campuses, we certainly don't have a problem with doing that.

Narration:  The beverage industry's proposal doesn't impress Jared Polis.  He says the American Beverage Association didn't go far enough.

Actuality:    Well, I think the ABA took an important first step, but we have to acknowledge a few things.  One, is that this is an attempt to forestall tougher state or federal legislation on nutritional standards in schools.  So it really comes about as a direct result of efforts like ours here in Colorado to toughen the standards.  Two, its voluntary.  There's nothing to prevent school districts and beverage companies from not following these recommendations as well as following them.

Narration:  Supporters of the bill vow to push for it again this year.  Jared Polis says his support hasn't wavered, and he says that if something isn't done soon, the crisis will force more drastic action.  Opponents don't seem to be worried.  Jane Urschel says that the state's school districts will remain opposed, and will continue to lobby their legislators to vote against it again.  The makeup of the legislature has not changed this year, so supporters will have to change some minds and votes.  A bill with the same language as last year was introduced into the House on the first day of the session last week, and is expected to be heard in the House education committee this week.  For now, Jorge's supply of hot cheetos and pop is safe.  

For KGNU, I'm Daniel Costello.