State Wants to Cut the Fat

by First Coast News

TALLAHASSEE, FL (AP) — Clamping down on the rising health costs among Florida’s obese population and getting school kids in better shape is a priority for Gov. Jeb Bush in the upcoming legislative session.

He literally wants lawmakers to cut the fat.

“The main focus is going to be on nutrition and schools,” Bush said, “and how do we provide incentives for healthier foods and more exercise for younger people.”

Among the recommendations lawmakers will consider when they convene for their regular session March 2 are mandatory physical fitness testing for all students in public schools and expanding health insurance coverage for nutritional therapy. Removing soda and candy machines from the public schools is another issue — the most controversial because of the dollars it provides schools.

Lawmakers have proposed eight bills on the subject, including one that would authorize the state agriculture commissioner to fine schools that provide food in vending machines that does not meet required nutritional standards. The Legislature is sure to debate the issue, but how much action it takes is another question.

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, promised “an animated debate over that subject,” but House Speaker Johnnie Byrd isn’t as keen on the idea of legislating something he feels the school districts can handle.

“I don’t think the state Legislature ought to be micromanaging what’s in a vending machine,” said Byrd, R-Plant City. “The schools, quite frankly, can work (it) out.”

A big fight could come over efforts to remove soda and candy machines from schools that count on the money from those sales. Bush led a move early in his first term that cleared the way for school districts to sell the items — a decision supported by Coca Cola, the vending industry and Schools Boards Association, which was desperate for finding dollars for items such as computers and athletic equipment.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who was then Florida’s insurance commissioner, was the lone Cabinet member to oppose changing the rule change to make it easier for school children to access the snacks on school grounds. King, the rotund Senate leader and self-proclaimed poster boy for fighting obesity, said the state has a responsibility to make sure students get the proper nourishment.

He believes students should be free to spend their money on candy or sodas during what he called “playground” time. “I don’t think substituting a balanced meal with a Milky Way and a soft drink is what we ought to propose,” he said.

State officials started a “Fresh-2-U” program last August to provide more nutrition in school lunches, targeting elementary school students increasingly at risk of diabetes. The program introduces two new fruit or vegetables to students each month. Other states are also focusing on the obesity issue.

In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee has taken the lead in his state’s effort. Huckabee has lost 70 pounds since last summer and pushed legislation to remove vending machines with high-calories snacks from elementary schools and requiring body-mass index measuring for all students.

Poor nutrition coupled with inactivity is the second leading cause of death in Florida. And for the first time, medical professionals warn the present generation may not outlive its predecessors. Physicians are particularly alarmed about the startling increase in type 2 diabetes in children In 2002, more than half of Florida’s adults were overweight and almost one-fifth were considered obese, according to the state Department of Health. About one-fourth of all high school students consider themselves overweight as well.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimated medical expenditures resulting from obesity-related health issues reached $75 billion last year and contributes to more than 300,000 deaths nationally.

Bush signed an executive order in October aimed at cracking down on the epidemic that state officials fear will lead to runaway health care costs and “a tidal wave” of higher mortality rates. The governor’s executive order noted that fewer than 50 percent of the state’s high school students attend physical education classes more than once a week and that nearly two-thirds of all high school students watch two or more hours of television each day.

Leon County Schools Superintendent Bill Montford said students can graduate with as little as a semester of physical education in high school. “Our kids just don’t sweat enough,” he said. “They can go through four years of high school and not break a sweat unless they are involved in extracurricular activities.”

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