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Poor school lunches promote obesity

When given choice, kids choose junk food over healthier fare

WASHINGTON, July 1 - Schools that offer students pizza and fries as alternatives to healthier lunch fare are not only encouraging children to eat high-fat foods during lunch hour - but after school and at home as well, U.S. researchers said Monday.

They said schools need to think about whether the money they earn on "a la carte" programs is worth the toll they take on children's health.

Consumer and parents' groups have recently begun complaining about the a la carte programs and availability of vending machines, which offer children more "popular" foods alongside the traditional, and carefully balanced, school lunch.

But little scientific research has been done into the actual effects of offering children such a choice, said Martha Kubik of the University of Minnesota.

"This is probably the first paper that looks at the a la carte programs in schools and their influence on student dietary behavior," said Kubik, a registered nurse.

Her team collected data on 16 middle schools, three of which did not offer a la carte alternatives that include pizza, fries and sweet snacks.

They took details of what the teenagers ate for the previous 24 hours.

Reporting in the American Journal of Public Health, Kubik said the children who were allowed to choose food outside the standard school lunches ate more fat and fewer fruits and vegetables than the government recommends.

"We weren't just looking necessarily at food they ate at school. We looked at food they ate outside of school as well," Kubik said in a telephone interview.

"That suggests how important the school environment is. If they were at these schools that offered a la carte, they were not making up for choices made at school by eating healthier foods out of school. It shows how powerful the school influence is - not only are they exposed to their own choices - they are exposed to the choices of their peers."

Nine out of 10 U.S. schools offer the a la carte programs, which do not have to meet the U.S. government's nutritional recommendations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These call for eating at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables and getting no more than 30 percent of calories from fat.

Kubik said she did not believe school districts would easily give them up. "The a la carte programs have become an important revenue source for school food services programs and that's across the country," she said.

The USDA says average a la carte program sales generated $913 per year per 1,000 students in the 1998-1999 school year.


Lauren Ayers

James Curiel, PhD
Professor, Sociology

Don Glines
Educational Futures

Hasan Hanks

Jeanie Keltner, PhD
Editor, Because People Matter

Michael J. Kwiker, D.O.

William Mora, M.D.
Health Associates Medical Group

Susan Montoya

Cynthia Mulcaire

Carlina Nowrocki

Robert O’Brien, MA

Suiying Saechao
Member LEAF at Hiram Johnson HS

Charity Smith
President Youth Congress at Sac High