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Editorial: Limiting unhealthy food at schools is important step to fight obesity

Feb. 06, 2013 @ 11:07 PM

Now that more Americans are realizing the severity of the nation's obesity problem, attention to what children eat and drink at schools understandably has gained more attention.

The result is that an increasing number of schools -- including those in Cabell County -- have intensified efforts to offer healthier breakfasts and lunches to their students. That's a welcome reaction after so many decades when school offerings trended toward more processed foods that only contributed to more overweight children.

Part of the impetus for those changes has come from a child nutrition law passed by Congress in 2010. Under that act, nutrition guidelines for government-subsidized lunches served at schools were revised last year and put in place last fall. Now, the government is fulfilling another requirement of that law by stepping beyond the content of the subsidized meals and spelling out what other kinds of foods and drinks can be sold at schools in "a la carte" lines and vending machines. Those have not been regulated before.

The proposed new rules, released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would ban foods like fatty chips, snack cakes, nachos and mozzarella sticks. Instead, students could be offered such foods as baked chips, trail mix, diet sodas, lower-calorie sports drinks and low-fat hamburgers.

Most snacks sold in school would have to have less than 200 calories. Elementary and middle schools could sell only water, low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice. High schools could sell some sports drinks, diet sodas and iced teas, but the calories would be limited. Drinks would be limited to 12-ounce portions in middle schools and to 8-ounce portions in elementary schools.

For those who are worried about "nanny state" implications, the new rules do not mean that "food police" will be set up at school doors. The proposals would not apply to in-school fundraisers or bake sales, though states have the power to regulate those if they choose. The guidelines also would not affect after-school concessions at school games or theater events, treats brought from home for classroom celebrations or what students bring to school for their own consumption.

Viewed altogether, the proposed rules form a step in the right direction toward a goal that should be welcomed by all -- healthier children. Limiting children's choices of unhealthy foods is one way to try to combat a problem that threatens their well-being.

Nearly a fifth of the nation's children are considered obese, and in West Virginia more than a quarter fit into that category. As you might suspect, those overweight children are already beset with health problems such as high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol rates and face future health risks such as diabetes and heart disease.

Many schools across the nation and in our region already have taken steps to remove sugary drinks and other unhealthy foods from their offerings, but many have not. These rules will only contribute to the much-needed effort to help children be healthier.

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