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Column: Put nutritious snacks in the schools

As a parent and grandparent, I've learned that being a good role model can help teach children to make healthy choices. As a state representative, I know that the state of Florida and the federal government play a crucial role in ensuring that all children have the ability to make healthy choices regarding what they eat at home and at school, where children spend a majority of their day.

That's why I believe the proposed updates to nutrition standards for school snacks are so important. The updates, put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, call for more healthful competitive foods, which are the snacks and drinks offered outside of the school meals program.

When my children were young, our family was not always financially secure, which sometimes made providing healthful meals difficult. As many struggling families know, it isn't always easy to provide healthful, low-cost and easily prepared meals. This was true in my home. Both of my children struggled with weight issues throughout their childhood and young adult lives. I wish that I'd understood as much as I do now about the importance of healthful eating at home and at school when they were growing up.

The reality is that most students are surrounded by junk food and sugary drinks sold in school vending machines, stores and a la carte lines in the cafeteria during lunch. This means many students can buy cookies, ice cream, pizza, sugary drinks and fries, instead of — or in addition to — a healthier lunch choice. In fact, a recent report estimates that students consume 400 billion calories worth of junk food in U.S. schools every year.

If we don't act now to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, this generation of young people may be the first in our nation's history to live sicker and die younger than their parents' generation. More than 23 million of the nation's children and adolescents are overweight or obese, putting them at high risk for serious health problems.

In Florida, more than one in three of our children and adolescents are overweight or obese. Research has shown that children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults, and if current trends continue, more than 58 percent of Floridians could be obese by 2030. In fact, over the next 20 years, obesity could contribute to more than 2.4 million new cases of type 2 diabetes, 6.2 million new cases of coronary heart disease and stroke, and more than 860,000 new cases of cancer in Florida.

This does not have to be our future. We already are taking steps to put Florida on a path to better health. We have limited the availability of unhealthful competitive foods in secondary schools, and have adopted popular Farm-to-School programs and a statewide complete streets policy (allowing access for all users, including bicyclists). We're also measuring students' height and weight so we have a better sense our state's childhood obesity rates.

But Florida still has a long way to go. Having strong national guidelines for competitive foods would be a major step in the right direction. These standards will help close loopholes that may keep unhealthful items in schools and help ensure that vulnerable children, including those from low-income and racial and ethnic communities like the ones I serve, have equal access to healthful snacks and drinks at school.

I know how hard it can be to see the children you love deal with weight issues. It affects so many aspects of a family and a community. I have witnessed the health issues that we face in Florida and I know we can do better. We must place a high priority on supporting and improving the policies that keep our kids healthy. I'm proud of the work Florida has done to provide healthier options to our students, but it's critical that the final USDA rule is as strong as possible so that for the first time in decades, all kids in our nation's schools will have access to snacks and drinks that are wholesome and nutritious.

Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa represents District 62 in the Florida House of Representatives and serves as ranking member of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Put nutritious snacks in the schools 04/10/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 5:18pm]
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