December 31st, 2004

California Governor Signs Bills to Trim Obesity in Schools

By Lynda Gledhill
San Francisco Chronicle

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, kicking off a statewide campaign to reduce obesity, signed landmark legislation Thursday that will raise nutritional standards for food sold at California schools and ban the sale of sodas on all campuses by 2009.

California will have the toughest school food nutrition guidelines in the nation when the new laws take effect. The legislation, which Schwarzenegger signed over the objections of the California Chamber of Commerce and food manufacturers, drew praise from educators and physicians who see it as a way the state can make a significant difference in shaping the health of the state’s children.

SB12 sets nutrition standards for schools with the aim of limiting the amount of calories and sugar content that children consume. SB965 will extend the state’s ban on the sale of soda during school hours to high schools, allowing only milk, water, juice and electrolyte drinks to be sold. The ban already applies to elementary and middle schools.

The restrictions will apply only to food sold at schools and does not affect what students can bring to campuses.

Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier, who sponsored both bills, gave the governor credit for standing up to beverage producers. She had worked on the issue for seven years, facing stiff opposition from soda companies.

And even after the bill was signed, the head of the American Beverage Association said the obesity problem won’t be solved through "unnecessary restrictions."

"We believe this complex problem would be more effectively addressed by educating students on the importance of living a balanced lifestyle, consuming a variety of foods and beverages in moderation and exercising every day," said Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer of the association.

Schools could lose money from vending contracts, officials acknowledge. But Escutia said the companies can instead market their water or other beverages on school grounds. The restrictions do not apply to foods sold during fund-raising events as long as they are sold 30 minutes after the school day ends.

A third bill signed by the governor, SB281 by Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, spends $18.2 million to provide fruits and vegetables for school breakfast programs.

"California is facing an obesity epidemic," said Schwarzenegger, who is expected to announce today in San Diego that he will seek re-election. Citing statistics showing that Californians have gained 360 million pounds over the past decade, Schwarzenegger said obesity costs the state $28 billion a year for health care.

The bill signing was the high point of a daylong summit on obesity hosted by Schwarzenegger and first lady Maria Shriver, who invited Lance Armstrong and Dr. Phil McGraw, along with corporations and medical professionals, to talk about the growing health crisis in the state.

Experts said obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease and cancer, which have helped increase state and national health care costs. Approximately 30 percent of Americans are obese—a huge increase over the past decade that can be linked to lifestyle choices, said Dr. William Dietz, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity.

To kick off the day, Schwarzenegger, Shriver and Armstrong led several hundred schoolchildren on a walk around the Cal Expo fairgrounds.

"We as parents have to lead by example," said Armstrong, winner of the Tour de France the past seven years. "Showing our kids what it’s like to have healthy lifestyles and what it’s like to eat right and exercise is so important."

During the walk, kids flocked to the action-hero governor and the cycling champion to get their autographs. London Donson, 14, a sophomore at New Tech High in Sacramento, got Schwarzenegger’s signature on two DVDs of the governor’s movies.

London said he considers himself fit and does not each junk food. But when asked, he admitted that he eats food from Taco Bell once a week before church.

"That’s my splurge," he said.

Not everyone is convinced the legislation will work. Andrea Onstot, a senior at Colfax High School, said that while it would be good to have choices other than pizza at school, kids’ lifestyles are not likely to change.

"They really need to change the mind-set," she said. "Kids don’t have dinner with their parents; they see their parents do unhealthy things."

Participants in the summit admitted that parents sometimes don’t have the resources to encourage healthy lifestyles. The California Endowment, a nonprofit organization that sponsored the summit, has launched a $26 million initiative to reduce the high rate of obesity and diabetes in poor neighborhoods.

In the six local communities, including Oakland, the endowment is working to bring in farmers’ markets and provide safe places for children to be able to exercise.

"These are the kind of comprehensive policies and environmental changes that lead the way for healthier eating and exercise in underserved communities," said Robert Ross, president and chief executive officer of the group.

McGraw, who closed the summit, said it will take a multifaceted approach to change the way America eats.

"It needs to be cool to eat healthy," said McGraw, the popular TV host known as Dr. Phil. "People need to be educated about the consequences of their behavior."


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