Childhood Obesity in Middle America

Kansas Summer Wheat and Storm Panorama

(This is a sequel to yesterday’s post, which tracks the story of how the feisty, quintessentially Middle American state of Kansas has handled its journey toward eliminating childhood obesity.)

Late in 2010, the state of Kansas ruled that within a year — meaning by the autumn of 2011 — school vending machines must eliminate sugary drinks, candy, and other junk food. But apparently that ruling was rescinded, modified, or possibly ignored. By 2012, 49% of the state’s secondary schools were complying with the “exemplary” guidelines for snack shops and vending machines. It was an improvement, if not a total capitulation.

Meanwhile, the “We Are Hungry” video made national news. Although it was not about vending machines, but concerned only food service programs (that is, official school lunches prepared by cafeterias), it did help to focus attention once more on the whole question of what kids were eating during the school day.

In 2013, the state’s Department of Health and Environment published a report titled “Obesity, Physical Activity and Nutrition in Kansas.” For some unknown reason, it covered middle schools and high schools — as well as babies — but not elementary schools. This document noted that close to half of the schools had taken at least one of the following actions: prohibited the advertising of candy, fast food, soft drinks in the building; prohibited such ads on buses and other student transport vehicles; prohibited such ads in school publications, including websites.

Of the schools that had snack shops or vending machines, 13% had experimented with setting lower prices for their nutritious snacks than for the detrimental ones.

Early this year, the school board of the state’s sixth largest city, Lawrence, considered a proposed policy that would forbid the sale of “competitive foods
during the time periods when the cafeteria served breakfast or lunch. This rule would have been rather pointless because, as Peter Hancock wrote:

Lawrence officials … noted that Free State High School and South Middle School are the only school buildings in the district that have vending machines, and those are already turned off during breakfast and lunch periods.

And those machines already comply with the proposed federal guidelines, which ban certain kinds of junk foods and beverages that are high in sugar, salt or fat, while encouraging healthier options like fresh fruit, whole grains, juices and bottled water.

In the same month, the USDA loosened up the rules that had provoked high school kids into making the “We Are Hungry” video, which gave U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) an opportunity to criticize federal intervention in school nutrition:

I don’t think there is any question that all of us want our children to eat nutritious foods, but the USDA rule contains impractical and unrealistic standards that leave students hungry and are cost-prohibitive for schools to comply with…. Unfunded mandates like this one were making it even harder for schools to provide healthy meals to our kids.

An unfunded mandate is what they call it when the federal government makes a new rule but doesn’t give a state any new money to implement it. In many American hearts, the phrase inspires a mighty resistance. Kansans, in particular, seem eager to demonstrate that they can do the right thing without having Washington, D.C., coerce them into it.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Preventions Status Report 2013,”, 2013
Source: “Obesity, Physical Activity and Nutrition in Kansas,”, March 2013
Source: “New food policy could affect school fundraisers,”, 01/28/14
Source: “USDA Agrees to Make Permanent Changes to National School Lunch Program,”, 01/03/14
Image by James Watkins

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