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Chips down and out

An education authority has declared war on unhealthy food as America's child obesity problem grows. Stephen Phillips reports.


A US education authority is going cold turkey on sugary snacks, greasy goodies and pop, declaring its schools "junk-food-free zones", and mounting a fitness drive to tackle America's mounting childhood obesity epidemic.

New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago are among the cities which have outlawed soft-drink sales in schools, but New Haven, Connecticut, has gone further.

Education chiefs have dropped fried food from lunch menus, replacing chips and chicken nuggets with baked items. Staff and students have until the end of term to satisfy any cravings for salt and sugar-laden fixes.

Crisps, fizzy beverages and cookies will be stripped from vending machines this September, and replaced by baked crisps, muesli bars, fruit juices, bottled water and milk.

Healthy eating tips are being dished up in class and, to spur physical activity, building plans include designs for roomier gyms.

Students at Nathan Hale elementary school, which is piloting other initiatives due to go live across the 20,400-student authority next term, perform the Pilates system of exercises. They were also recently kitted out with pedometers to count their every stride and challenged to walk 10,000 steps, or five miles, daily.

"It's pretty unique to take nutrition this seriously," said Pamela Koch, nutrition and education professor at Columbia university's teachers college.

"We see it as a curriculum issue," said New Haven schools communications director Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlos. "If you're obese or at risk of getting diabetes, it's an impediment to learning." Around 15 per cent of six to 19-year-old Americans are obese.

In New Haven, even the bake sale - a mainstay of US parent-teacher association fund-raising - has been axed in favour of alternative money-spinners, such as plant sales, which do not involve stodgy confectionery.

But, as well as occasional grousing about the "food police" from junk-food junkies, New Haven's initiative has faced opposition from principals, concerned at the loss of lucrative sponsorship deals with soft drink firms, said Ms Sullivan-DeCarlos.

Vending machines dispensing Coke or Pepsi offer a funding lifeline for cash-strapped US schools.

Virginia Beach school district, in Virginia, struck a 10-year contract with Pepsi in 2001 which is expected to bring in $7million (pound;3.8m).

"Pepsi wants to build brand loyalty and capture a market," said chief financial officer Victoria Lewis. "For us it's a way to buy supplies and equipment." The machines also stock Pepsi's fruit drinks, Ms Lewis added.

But drinks touted as healthy alternatives to sodas are often just as fattening, said Ms Koch.

"One-hundred-per-cent juice drinks have other nutrients but many have just as much sugar per ounce," she said, criticising New York's $40m 2003 pact with Snapple to supply such drinks, and water, to the city's schools.

"These drinks look quite similar to the soft drinks Snapple sells outside schools that are not 100 per cent juice - it's all about name recognition," Ms Koch added.

On yer bike 38

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