San Antonio is especially threatened: Obesity is prevalent among the poor, Hispanic, and Black populations. In a state where 28.6 percent of low-income children ages 2-5 are classified as obese (not overweight, obese), parents often look to the schools for clues as to why their little boy isn't so little. Perhaps stirred by memories of Corn-dog Tuesdays and Pizza Fridays, Texans are apt to point their pudgy fingers at the school lunch program, where thousands of students eat two free meals a day.

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Carroll Bell Elementary students in the Harlandale I.S.D. wind their way through the lunch line in the school cafeteria. On this day, the kids had the choice of a fish sandwich with tater tots, fruit and a vegetable, or a salad and baked potato. Although many students chose the fried fish sandwich, nearly half opted for the healthier alternatives. Photo by Mark Greenberg

But the truth - as always - is more complicated. In surveying seven of San Antonio's biggest school districts, the Current discovered a wide array of personal activism and institutional apathy about reforming cafeteria fare. Complicating this issue are political rivalries between health programs and corporate meddling in proposed laws to keep snack food and soft drink companies out of schools. Add to this a coach-potato culture and you have a recipe for obesity far more potent than just one corndog.

The news media has made the obesity epidemic the flavor of the month, but Texas' school lunch reform took its first steps in 2001, with the passage of Senate Bill 19, which mandated that all schools institute a "coordinated health education program" by 2007. The program must include "health education, physical education, nutritional services, and parental involvement," but in many Texas schools, administrators haven't even started the planning stages. In luckier districts, a few hardworking, dedicated women are fighting American consumerism, and bringing these programs to their schools. Harlandale, Northeast, and Northside Independent School Districts have used the CATCH program (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) for several years. Endorsed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), CATCH is gaining popularity due to both its effectiveness and its low-cost "teach-the-trainer" approach: training food service workers in healthy cooking habits. In the classroom, kids learn to discriminate between foods that are healthy, moderately sinful, and just plain wrong; the "go," "slow," and "whoa!" labels clearly marked on their foods.

Unlike other acronymed school education programs (DARE comes to mind), CATCH has been clinically proven to work by lowering dietary fat content and increasing physical activity among participating students. At costs as low as $395 per school, the program's success hinges on the involvement of often-reticent administrators, teachers, and staff.

Elsewhere, schools are participating in Bienestar, Dr. Robert Treviño's research program, out of the Social Health and Research Center, which is designed to discover and prevent the causes of Type II diabetes. While genetic predispositions such as race factor heavily, poverty and overeating are significant risk factors in contracting diabetes. Treviño says the Bienestar program has made significant inroads in its test cafeterias, lowering dietary fat and increasing fiber - and as a result, students reduce their blood-sugar levels. Although the results of Treviño's research are promising, the project won't be complete for another three years - and it is doubtful that Bienestar will be an exportable coordinated health program by 2007. Furthermore, the state's new Strategic Plan for Obesity Prevention calls for schools to adopt TEA-approved curriculums that are already being used in schools: namely, the CATCH program. The TEA has repeatedly refused to approve Bienestar, which Treviño calls a "political question" that has "nothing to do with science." Due to extensive blood sugar tests, the Bienestar program is expensive to operate - the average cost per child is $239, which is currently being covered by research grants.

What will happen to the program when the research is complete, and the funding runs dry? "We're not going to be shut out," Treviño reiterates, but he refuses to explain how. Instead, he alleges there is a conspiracy between TEA and CATCH, and alludes to having allies within the Texas senate to help him obtain the TEA's approval.

Yet, Treviño refuses to identify the legislators, and, when pressed, admits that he doesn't want anyone to contact any legisl tors: He's "trying to surprise them."

Whatever the truth behind the political debacle, one thing is certain: Schools currently participating in Bienestar are unlikely to adopt another program. For the next three years - the remainder of Trevino's study - the 14 schools designated as the "control group" won't make strides toward instituting a coordinated health program.

In other school districts, individual cafeterias might be trying to reduce dietary fat, but no institutional programs exist to ensure that changes are made. There is a fundamental lack of communication among the various departments, and people in the cafeteria don't know what's being discussed in the boardrooms. Jim Hutchinson, Food Service Director for East Central ISD, has never heard of Senate Bill 19, CATCH, or Bienestar, and says he "wasn't invited" to attend task force meetings. Many schools suffer from a lack of "priorities," explains Linda Seewald, CATCH coordinator for Northside ISD. "Physical education doesn't have a coordinator in some districts. It gets lost because no one is looking out for it." This could be why Southwest ISD officials, contacted about their plans to combat childhood obesity, replied that each of their departments "wasn't responsible" for that area.

Cafeteria trays are becoming lighter in calories and fat, but coordinated health programs can regulate only what kids eat inside the cafeteria. As Sally Kode, Food Service Director for Harlandale ISD points out, "Parents are not always aware what's going on when it comes to their kids' eating habits." Children who eat healthy meals for breakfast and lunch may grab a soda and chips after school, have another snack at their caregiver's, and then grab a quick fast-food burger on the way home with Mom: a caloric binge.

Add to this quandary fast-food savvy teens, who will leave campus if lunch doesn't suit them. Thus, young CATCH graduates may eat Papa John's, Chick-Fil-A, and Subway once they reach high school. Northside felt pressured to offer fast food, explains Cynthia Barton, the district's dietician, due to inadequacies of kitchen equipment and the razor-thin profit margin in the school's budget. Northside is a Provision II district, which means that although 100 percent of the students can receive a free lunch, the district is reimbursed for only 87 percent of those who qualify for free or reduced lunches. The profits from name-brand food and snack and soda vending machines on campus help to offset these losses. Therein lies the irony: By providing free healthy meals to all students, Northside is forced to make deals with purveyors of junk food, fattening up the young CATCH graduates.

Although Southwest and Edgewood districts don't sell sodas on campus, some districts have signed "exclusive pouring contracts" with soft drink companies, a devil's pact undertaken to secure desperately needed funding. Among other benefits, Northeast received $3.5 million from Coca-a-Cola; the company deposits an additional $188,000 annually in the school's general operating fund - money that could conceivably be spent on CATCH materials. These 10-year agreements are carefully worded, and make it almost impossible for legislators to outlaw the sale of sodas in schools. If the recently proposed Healthy School Kids Act becomes state law, according to their contracts, schools would have to return those soda-sweet dollars. Fred Calhoun, associate superintendent of operations at Northeast ISD, puts it bluntly: "If this goes through, we're going to lose millions." Not to worry, Mr. Calhoun. Coke and Pepsi have already sent their lobbyist goons to Austin, and a revised bill is expected shortly. Also on the legislative slate, proposed Senate Bill 474 would mandate transparency of contracts between schools and companies like Coke, require all revenue transactions to be documented, and profits to be carefully monitored. Even a Tater Tot knows this bill has little chance of passing.

School lunches are easy scapegoats for childhood obesity, but the real villains are more sinister. In a society where wealth is valued over health, corporations consistently undermine anti-obesity programs, and the real victims are kids, who will suffer the consequences. In the words of Dr. Peter Cribb, one of the original CATCH researchers: "If the state put enough money and materials in, we could turn the tide of obesity."

It's time to step up to a different kind of plate. •

More by Laura M. Fries



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