Schools ramping up student fitness

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 all schools to phase out sodas and high-fat snacks, including those in vending machines, in two years.

But fatty snacks and vending machines aren’t the only factors at fault. 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 instead of 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 of students, 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 outlive their parents.”

Dana Woldow, chairwoman of the San Francisco School District Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, said there is “no silver bullet” for the obesity epidemic. Her district was among the first in the Bay Area to ban sodas at schools and has some of the most stringent requirements when it comes to providing nutritious foods for students.

“The notion that kids should have freedom of choice is pretty funny coming from an industry that spends $30 billion and year advertising junk food and soda,” Woldow said, pointing out that the National Institute of Health gets just $5 million a year to promote fruit and vegetables.

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.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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