County takes aim at obesity

Beleaguered fitness professionals and school nurses are leading efforts to reduce student obesity by adding private gym-style fitness classes, revamping campus lunch menus and phasing out sodas and high-fat vending snacks despite budget and staffing cuts.

Recent federal reporting requirements have forced schools to face up to the bulging problem of obesity among children. Beginning this fall, schools will be required to develop wellness policies to address student health and nutrition. In addition, two state laws that take effect July 1, 2007, require schools to phase out sodas and high-fat snacks, including in vending machines, over two years.

However, with the average school lunch reimbursement from the federal government at about $2.50, cafeteria managers have struggled to find healthier choices kids will choose over the ever-popular French fries, pizza and burritos. “It makes it a lot more difficult to be within budget, especially at the high schools because of the large portions,” said Marilyn Olague, director of food services at Sequoia High School District.

Efforts to improve school nutrition and fitness programs are reflective of a seismic policy shift from a few years ago, when school routinely signed exclusive contracts with the likes of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, putting vending machines on campuses in exchange for slipping a few thousand dollars into dwindling education budgets, officials said.

Fully 25 percent, or 4,900 children, in San Mateo County are overweight. In San Francisco that figure is only slightly lower at 24 percent, according to the latest data compiled by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

“It’s so huge when you think that one in four children is overweight,” said Laurie Bauer, district nurse for the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto. “We have a whole generation of kids that are going to be struggling with their weight and may not have outlive their parents.”

Perhaps one of the biggest factors has been a loss of nursing and health education staff, and less time spent exercising, Bauer said. Since Proposition 13 was approved by voters in 1978 — capping the property tax funds most districts rely on — nurses, health teachers and fitness staff have dwindled, said Nancy Spradling, executive director of the California School Nurses Organization.

Where the National School Nurses Association recommends one nurse for every 750 students, Sequoia Union High School District nurse Judy Sencenbaugh serves 10 times that number. The district also eliminated a freshman class P.E. teacher last year, in spite of state requirements that ninth-graders take fitness, according to officials.

Frustrating to teachers and administrators alike is that the additional federal and state mandates come with no additional money for developing a wellness policy, purchasing healthier ingredients for lunches or health education.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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