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Deadly Diet: School Lunches Flunk Out

A national wellness campaign is working to take junk food out of schools, and put nutrition back in.
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WebMD Feature

The number of obese and overweight children in the United States continues to soar, and yet, over the past two decades, junk food and drinks have staked out a beachhead in America's schools.

Now a new wellness campaign has parents on the front lines of the battle, ready to turn back the clock -- and take back their children's health.

Passing Math but Flunking Lunch

Carey Dabney is one of those parents on the front lines. When Dabney moved to Austin, Texas in 1999, she attended a back-to-school night for her two daughters, then both in middle school. She was delighted to hear the health teacher talk about everything she was teaching regarding nutrition and fitness -- until the very end of the presentation.

"She said, 'But nothing I do here matters, because you should see what they eat at lunch,'" recalls Dabney.

A quick tour of the school told Dabney what the teacher meant. There were six to eight vending machines right outside the cafeteria, selling sweetened soft drinks. candy bars, and potato chips.

Even before they could pass the vending machines, students would run a gauntlet of booster club tables hawking candy, chips, and cakes.

If they made it past the one-two punch of vending machines and candy boosters, students entered the cafeteria to find the "a la carte" line selling pints of ice cream, tubs of chips with cheese sauce, and giant slices of pizza. "The a la carte line snaked out the door, while the little cafeteria line with the regular food never had many people in it," Dabney says.

If you're a parent with a child in middle school or high school, Dabney's experience probably sounds very familiar.

Deadly Diet: Kids' Health at Risk

That's why the stakes are so high, says Rallie McAllister, MD, MPH, an expert on childhood obesity and the author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.

By 2010 approximately half of all children are expected to be obese, according to the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, says McAllister. "Many experts predict that this generation of children will be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents."

In May, the campaign to "de-junk" school menus got a boost from the former "snacker-in-chief," Bill Clinton, whose love for fries and greasy food contributed to his own cardiac bypass surgery in 2004.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation -- a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association -- worked with representatives of leading beverage manufacturers to stop nearly all sales of sugary soft drinks in the nation's public schools. Under new guidelines, only lower-calorie and nutritious beverages will be sold to schools.

"It's a great place to start," says McAllister. "I'm very encouraged. But there's so much more we have to do, such as dramatically improving the quality of the food schools offer at lunchtime."

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