Less junk food seen in US schools, CDC finds

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WASHINGTON, Oct 20 (Reuters) French fries and other fatty and sugary foods and drinks are becoming harder to find in US schools, a government report showed, but many schools are falling short on providing physical education for pupils.

More schools prohibit smoking and other tobacco use, but more than a third do not have such a ban, according to the report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released yesterday.

The report tracked school health policy changes from 2000 to 2006. Janet Collins, who heads the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, said it showed encouraging progress but more work needs to be done.

Many experts have pointed to the abundance of junk food in elementary, middle and high school cafeterias and vending machines as a factor in the rise in US childhood obesity.

The CDC report showed that some, but certainly not all, of this stuff may be disappearing from schools.

For example, Howell Wechsler, director of CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, said 19 percent of schools sold french fries in 2006, compared to 40 percent in 2000.

''That means that approximately 25,000 more schools have stopped serving deep-fried potatoes. That's about equivalent to all of the schools in California, New York, Texas and Florida combined,'' Wechsler said.

The report also found that more schools are offering salads, low-fat or non-fat yogurt, and low-fat salty snacks like pretzels and baked chips. Fewer were selling cookies, cake or other high-fat baked goods in vending machines, it found.

Among high schools only, 61 percent in 2006 sold chips and other high-fat salty snacks in vending machines or stories. And 77 percent of high schools, 45 percent of middle schools and 16 percent of elementary schools sold sodas and other sugary beverages that were not 100 percent juice.

LONG LINES FOR PIZZA ''I still see too many school lunch periods in which the longest lines are for pizza, chicken wings and french fries,'' said Chandler Converse, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Georgia who appeared with CDC officials at a news briefing.

Experts blame youth obesity also on physical inactivity and a sedentary life spent in front of a TV or computer screen.

The percentage of school districts that required elementary schools to provide students with regularly scheduled recess time rose from 46 per cent in 2000 to 57 per cent in 2006.

But the report also found that just 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 per cent of middle schools and 2 per cent of high schools provided daily physical education for students in all grades the whole school year. And 22 percent of schools did not require students to take any physical education at all.

Wechsler said the CDC recommends schools ban tobacco use in all locations including off-campus, school-sponsored events.

The report found the percentage of schools with such bans rose from 46 per cent in 2000 to 64 per cent in 2006.

''I think that one thing that really galls young people is seeing hypocrisy. And being taught all the time about how bad tobacco use is, and then to see it allowed on campus or at a school event really contradicts that message,'' Wechsler said.

The report's data came from state education agencies and surveys of about 500 local school districts, 1,100 public and private schools and 2,000 teachers, CDC said.

REUTERS RAR HS0838

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