Childhood obesity is a major national public issue in the United States. According to the American Obesity Association, approximately 30 percent of all American children over the age are six, and 15 percent are obese, with boys showing slightly higher rates than girls. By all standards, children with weight problems grow up into adults with weight problems. These children have significantly higher rates of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma, as well as tangible developmental and psychological problems due to their weight. These issues are covered by national and local news media nearly every day and are of extreme concern among parents, health professionals and educators.
The two most obvious causes of childhood obesity are, understandably, lack of exercise and over-consumption of food. In-school food providers and food companies have been under pressure for many years to do what they can to provide American children with better quality meals and snacks while they are at school. One of the most vexing issues involves the availability to children of vending machines dispensing high calorie, high fat, snack foods on school property. The controversy has been complicated by the fact that schools and school districts bring in much needed income from licensing fees paid by these vending companies; for large school districts in big cities this can amount to millions of dollars annually.
Though initiatives to remove the vending machines from schools have often stalled, progress was made in October 2006 when a The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a major initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association (spearheaded by former-President Bill Clinton), announced a voluntary agreement by five major snack food manufacturers (Campbell Soup Company, Dannon, Kraft Foods, Mars and PepsiCo) to set certain standards for snack foods sold in schools, by vending machines or other means. The guidelines coordinate with education efforts, all with the aim of getting school children to eat lower calorie, more nutrition-rich foods and to have more balanced diets overall.
Foods encouraged under the guidelines are fruits and vegetables and whole grains, with limits placed on fat content, trans-fat content, sodium, sugar and other ingredients deemed to be nutritionally unsound. The agreement applies to cookies, ice cream, chips, nuts, and other foods widely consumed by children.
The initiative and cooperation by the food manufacturers doesn’t touch school lunch programs for the approximately 54 million students in 123,000 elementary, middle and high schools in the United States, but similar progress has been made, not always on a nationally coordinated basis of course, in school districts across the nation. According to a 2006 School Nutrition Association survey, “over 71% of school districts made ‘significant’ efforts during the past two years to offer healthy meal choices through the National School Lunch Program.” At least a third of the schools have been removing sugary carbonated drinks from vending machines and replacing them with healthier fruit juices. Many school have been adding vegetarian options in their school lunch rooms and making better availability of fruits and vegetables. School kitchens now often bake foods they would have previously deep-fried. Schools are placing limits on fats and sugars in foods they serve. At the same time, and in coordination with these efforts, schools have been conducting major nutritional education efforts among their students.