For Immediate Release
March 4, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

Why It is Important for Schools to Sell Healthy Foods

An Op-Ed Column by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer

Twenty years ago smoking by adults in schools was a common sight. Not surprisingly, so was adolescent tobacco use in the community.

Thankfully, today smoking is unthinkable anywhere in Kansas schools. And adolescent tobacco use is at last showing a steady decline.

This welcome transformation has happened because nearly everyone now agrees that our educational institutions should be places that model health and wellness for our kids.

But with obesity now surpassing tobacco as the biggest threat to health that our kids face, the state’s educators and health professionals alike are asking if junk food in school vending machines and school stores is sending young Kansans the wrong message.

These professionals are concerned that obesity rates have doubled among children and have tripled among adolescents since the mid-1980s. In response, they are now rallying in support of Senate Bill 499, which would impose strict standards on the foods and beverages schools sell to students from machines and snack bars.

Children and adolescents spend more time in school than in any other place except their homes. What the school environment says to kids about their health exerts considerable influence on the behaviors they adopt for a lifetime.

While meals provided as part of a school’s food service must meet strict federal nutrition standards, snack foods sold in vending machines and school stores do not, unless state or local rules say otherwise. As a result, most such foods are low in nutrients and high in fat, added sugars, sodium and calories.

Thanks to strong public health advocacy in certain communities, many more Kansas schools now sell healthier items in their machines and stores, such as water, low fat milk, 100 percent juice, yogurt, fruits and vegetables. But still, only a minority of the state’s districts meet the “exemplary” standard for such sales called for in the current bill.

I believe that every Kansas student deserves to learn in a school environment as good as those in the exemplary districts. Study after study has shown that when unhealthy foods are not easily available in schools that students have overall better diets.

New evidence published this month shows that in schools where rigorous and comprehensive standards for vending have been set by law, the rate of increase in obesity among fifth and seventh graders is being reduced.

Beyond this, we know that when a child’s nutritional needs are met without excess calories, that such a child is more attentive in class, has better attendance, is less likely to repeat a year, and has fewer disciplinary problems.

Lessons about healthy eating have long been an intrinsic component of our state’s health curriculum. But nutrition lessons taught in the classroom won’t have a lasting impact on children’s eating habits and physical well-being unless they are reflected and reinforced everywhere in the school environment.

Some say that without the ability to sell junk foods to kids, schools will see a loss of badly-needed revenue. But a recently published review of the scientific literature concluded that schools typically do not suffer income losses when they ensure that the snack foods they sell meet improved nutrition standards.

Kansas school administrators have told me that after an initial adjustment period kids will tend to buy what you offer them. As one of them put it, “They’re more interested in just spending their parents’ money than in getting any particular item.”

Passing Senate Bill 499 will not reverse childhood obesity by itself. When unhealthy foods are removed from our schools, Kansas children will still be exposed to them elsewhere in their lives, just having as smoke-free schools throughout the state doesn’t protect Kansas kids from exposure to tobacco in their homes and other places in the community.

Child obesity is a big, multi-faceted problem that will require a wide range of multi-faceted solutions. But this bill is an important step in the right direction.

Senate Bill 499 attacks the child obesity problem at its source, and it brings Kansas in line with 27 other states.

Beyond this, it ensures that when kids come to learn in our schools they are safe from the incoming tide of obesity, safe from the prevailing unhealthy food environment that threatens to rob them while they are still young of their God-given right to lead full and healthy lives.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov. Previous columns are now available online at Dr. Jason’s Blog, www.kdheks.gov/blogs/dr_jasons_blogs.htm.