Childhood Obesity Spotlight on Kansas

Tired teen girls in gym class

Tired teen girls in gym class

On this page we see yet another frame of the music video “We Are Hungry,” in which famished and debilitated girls have a hard time making it through gym class. The comedic short film, made by high school students in Kansas, actually had some influence in loosening up the calorie restrictions for school lunches.

Normally, stories about cultural change and social upheaval originate from either California or New York, where innovations usually begin before spreading to the rest of the country. Kansas is a classic Middle America “flyover” state. Nevertheless, it seems to have been an early adopter of updated nutritional standards, without too much struggle or fuss.

In 2008 and 2009, the state’s Board of Education looked at schools whose cafeterias sold “a la carte” items. That definition covers items separate from the meals that fall under the school lunch programs, which were already regulated by federal guidelines aiming for healthful offerings. But even though there was no legal requirement, 76% of the schools selling “a la carte” items kept them within the department’s “exemplary” nutrition standards. The situation was different in schools that had school stores (separate from the cafeterias) and/or vending machines. Only 37% of those food items complied with the “exemplary” guidelines.

Early in 2010, the state’s Senate Education Committee considered a bill which would have demanded that all schools meet the “exemplary” guidelines in every case. The state health officer, Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips, pushed for the bill’s passage in an op-ed column:

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.

Supporters of the status quo told him that stricter vending-machine rules would hurt schools that depended on those sales to raise money for programs and activities. But Dr. Eberhart-Phillips did his homework, and found a review of scientific studies proving that stocking the vending machines with nutritionally improved items would not necessarily result in decreased revenues. He also spoke with school administrators, who felt that students would easily adjust to buying more nutritious snacks.

Another opinion heard during this debate was that of a spokesperson for the Beverage Association, who protested that vendors had already been improving the offerings on a voluntary basis, which was working out very well. (Kansas is one of those states where “government intervention” can easily become fighting words.) Strangely, another opponent of the Senate bill was the Kansas Association of School Boards, which felt that local communities were already making good decisions and would continue to do so.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “School nutrition bill heard in Senate committee,” KHI.org, 03/04/10
Source: “Why It is Important for Schools to Sell Healthy Foods,” Kdheks.gov, 03/04/10
Image from “We Are Hungry”

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