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A Small Success for a Weighty Problem Schools Get Kids Eating Fruits, Veggies

A Small Success for a Weighty Problem
Schools Get Kids Eating Fruits, Veggies
September 27, 2004 06:21:44 AM PDT , ACS News Center

The principal at Hoover Middle School in Waterloo, Iowa, knows what lies in the hearts (and stomachs) of students ages 11-13. For one, they tend to be picky about food. They tend to throw things like grapes and blueberries. And he suspected that they would eat very few of the fresh fruit and vegetable snacks offered in a 2002-2003 test nutrition program at Hoover.
But to his great surprise, Principal Terry Meier saw students munching on fresh broccoli, cauliflower, green peppers, baby carrots, and many kinds of fruit.

"Was I ever wrong," Meier admits today. "It's been a really big success."

Based on the program's remarkable success that year at Hoover and more than 100 other elementary, middle, and high schools in four states, the US Department of Agriculture will spend $9 million to continue and expand the Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program (FVPP) this school year.

In the pilot year, children consumed an astounding 92%-93% of the fruit and vegetable servings offered -- a result school lunch managers and parents can only dream of, and a small success against the worrisome weight trends affecting children.

A Public Health Priority
In a nation where two thirds of adults are overweight or obese -- and children are increasingly a "chunk" off the old block -- getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables has been declared a public health priority. The near-epidemic of overweight kids could trigger a surge in cancer, heart disease, and diabetes if they carry the extra pounds through their adult lives.

Consuming more fruits and vegetables can help fight fat by displacing higher calorie foods. Researchers have found that child obesity rates grew as calorie-dense items like soda became a larger part of the typical child's diet.

In the first half of the 1990s, children's soft drink consumption rose by 40%. So depending on age, 56%-85% of children now drink soda each day, according to a USDA analysis. Teenage boys commonly drink as much as three 12-oz. soft drinks per day, which adds up to 30 teaspoons of sugar.

In the late 1970s, about 6% of American kids were classified as overweight. Today that figure has nearly tripled, as shown in a quantitative snapshot of children's health and lifestyle habits (at right).

How Schools Got Kids to Eat Their Vegetables
The USDA provided schools with an average of $94 per child during the pilot program for fresh fruit, dried fruit, fresh vegetables, and once a week, 100% fruit juice. Each school worked out the details.

Most served the fruits and vegetables as snacks during morning sessions, afternoon sessions, and sometimes both. In classrooms, students were essentially captive taste-testers, and having the school provide the food avoided, "the problem of bringing an apple from home not being cool," according to Joanne Guthrie, RD, co-author of a report to Congress about the program.

Some middle and high schools also set up kiosks in common areas and a few even tried free vending machines.

"Some children had never tasted a fresh pear. One person bit into an orange without peeling it," said Jeanne Buzbee, a USDA economist and co-author of the report. There was a run on kiwi fruit at a local market after students discovered it at school.

"Preference is built by exposure to a taste or food," explained Guthrie. "This could be a way of optimizing kids' health and behavior."

"It's something people can do now [to control their weight]. Having environments where it's safe to exercise is very important, but that's probably going to take longer to accomplish," said Guthrie.

Cauliflower and Ranch Dressing
School employees, many parents, and a vast majority of students liked the FVPP program. Apples, bananas, oranges, and pears were most commonly offered, but schools also tried different varieties, such as gala apples and Clementine oranges, and less familiar fruits such as kiwi and star fruit.

The vegetables served were less popular than the fruit and relied heavily on carrots and celery. Still, many students who were unwilling to eat broccoli or cauliflower in the past said they were willing to try them at school. The report notes, however, that too often schools served vegetables with high-fat dips.

Principal Meier has been down the treacherous dip road before. When his school added a salad bar, ranch-flavored dressing took on a life of its own. "We are now growing a culture of kids that use ranch dressing like ketchup," said Meier. "They drench foods with ranch dressing. They put it on pizza!"

"You eatin' any pizza with that ranch dressing?" he asks students on regular walks through the lunch room.

Efforts to improve children's food choices at school are springing up across the country. The long-range benefits could be impressive -- helping to lower the risk overweight children face in the future for serious illnesses such as cancer. More immediately, though, a healthy body weight allows children to enjoy an active young life. Guthrie points out that, "Childhood should be the time in your life that you can run and play and feel good. When are you going to feel better?"

By the Numbers: Children's Health and Habits


16% of kids ages 6-11 are overweight


Obesity rates doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the last 20 years


Only 27% of kids meet physical activity recommendations


Less than 25% eat 5-A-Day, the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables for children


Source: Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics
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