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Junk food laws take aim at child obesity

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today is expected to sign the nation's most sweeping laws strictly limiting sales of soda and junk food on public school campuses.

During his day-long Summit on Health, Nutrition and Obesity at Cal Expo, the governor plans to adopt the measures as well as other statewide programs to curb the obesity epidemic.

OAS_AD('Button20'); "The premise of the governor's approach is that clearly, we need bold action," said Kim Belshé, California secretary of health and human services. "This summit creates a context to allow people to step up and be part of the solution."

Public health advocates are hailing the action on student access to soda and junk food as a critical step in tackling the growing epidemic of overweight children and adolescents in California.

"This is really California making history," said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, based in Davis. "These will make the most significant impact on kids' school nutrition since the federal schools meal program was established after World War II."

But critics argue that limiting access to unhealthy food and sugary sodas will not motivate students, parents or anyone else to take the steps necessary to improve their overall health.

The soda and junk food bills coincide with unprecedented media, industry and political attention to the expanding waistlines of Americans, especially of children.

While research piles up documenting the nation's collective weight gain and its health consequences, the food and beverage industries have intensified their lobbying against restrictions.

Many of the 120 summit invitees represent the very trade groups that oppose California's proposed limits on soda and junk food sales in schools. A list of those invited includes, for example, top executives from Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo, J&J Snack Foods Corp. of California, Kraft Foods Inc., General Mills and Sugar Foods Corp.

The California Endowment, a health advocacy organization, is sponsoring the summit.

Belshé acknowledged that many of Schwarzenegger's allies oppose the bills. "The bills regarding food in the schools are really about kids and reflect the governor's very strong belief that schools should be a place where healthy foods and healthy beverages are what's made available," she said.

The governor also believes industry and other sectors represented at the summit have a role to play in combatting obesity. "There are some strange bedfellows," Belshé said. "Everyone gets this is a very significant problem. It is a problem that demands attention - yes, by government - but by a broad array of the community."

Belshé said Californians have gained 360 million pounds the past decade, an average of nearly 11 pounds apiece.

Children are of particular concern. Over the past 30 years, children 6 to 11 in the United States have become three times more likely to be overweight. Adolescents are twice as likely to be overweight.

Excessive weight puts children at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, behavior problems and depression.

A study published last month by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy found that in California, the percentage of children who are overweight increased 6 percent in just three years.

The report found that in 2004, 28.1 percent of every 100 children in grades 5, 7 and 9 were overweight, up from 26.5 percent in 2001.

"We were really shocked by the findings, given all the media attention this epidemic has gotten," Goldstein said. "It's a public health disaster."

Schwarzenegger's critics say banning soda and unhealthy snacks at school will not add up to thinner children.

"Our belief is that local school districts have all the resources they need to make decisions about what products they make available on campus," said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which opposed the soda and junk food bills and has announced many industry-sponsored initiatives to address the problem in other ways. "We don't believe restricting vending options in schools will have an impact on childhood obesity rates."

Students at Inderkum High School in Natomas said administrators yanked all junk food and sodas off their campus last year.

"We have baked Doritos, baked Cheetos, baked Lays, no sodas. We have Powerade and Minute Maid," said Arianna Broussard, a 16-year-old junior. "It wasn't our choice. We went to school one day, and all of a sudden everything was baked."

Goldstein and others acknowledge laws to limit sales of soda and junk food at public schools will not solve the problem.

"There is a whole lot more that needs to be done, starting with making sure all students receive quality physical education, eliminating advertising of unhealthy beverages and foods to kids and making sure there are grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods," he said.

A report released by Consumers Union on Wednesday - to coincide with the summit - found that government efforts to publicize healthy eating messages are overwhelmed by industry marketing. The food, beverage, candy and restaurant industries spent $11.26 billion in advertising in 2004; spending on the state's Five a Day campaign promoting consumption of fruits and vegetables reached only $9.55 million.

Still, because kids spend 180 days per year in school, it's a logical place to target food policy changes, Goldstein, the governor and others argue.

Findings released this week by Susan Babey, a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, appear to support that assumption.

Using data from the 2003 California Public Health Interview Survey, involving 4,000 adolescents from throughout the state, Babey found that kids who have access to sodas from vending machines at school drink 25 percent more soda than kids who don't.

"It really points to the importance of providing an environment where kids are encouraged to make healthier choices," she said. "Removing (soda from vending machines) may not eliminate the problem, but it will help."

About the writer: The Bee's Dorsey Griffith can be reached at (916) 321-1089 or - Get the whole story every day - SUBSCRIBE NOW! 

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