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Weighing In on Student Health

Local children are increasingly out of shape and overweight, a study shows.

September 24, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Against the backdrop of the Ventura school district's first farm-fresh salad bar, community leaders joined Tuesday to urge legislators and other policymakers to take a tougher stand against a rising tide of children showing up to school overweight and out of shape.

That message was bolstered by the release of a new study that chronicled a surge in childhood obesity and other health problems in three coastal California counties. The six-page study, titled "A Health Crisis in Paradise," said the coastal region reflected national trends toward increased obesity, less physical activity and reduced nutrition education in schools.

In Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, the study said, more than a quarter of the fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students tested were overweight, and a third were unable to pass basic fitness tests.

The study was put together by the Gold Coast Collaborative, a coalition of educators and health professionals. It made several policy recommendations, including a call to educators, elected officials and others to hold forums next year to identify ways to battle obesity.

"The statistics we compiled were a little alarming," said Sandy VanHouten, director of child nutrition services for the Ventura Unified School District, which is a partner in the Gold Coast coalition. "The good news is that we are really working on improving the health of our children. It's definitely a challenge to look at what we are doing and how we are doing it."

The study was unveiled at Juanamaria Elementary School shortly after students finished feasting on a salad-bar lunch offered twice a week at the east Ventura campus. Juanamaria was the first school in the district to offer the salad bar as part of a project launched in 2001. Salad bars are now fixtures in nine Ventura elementary schools.

Fifth-grade students Brenda Garcia and Cody Young were called during the presentation to extol the virtues of the salad-bar program.

"I hope there is a salad bar at Balboa next year," Cody said of the middle school he will attend in sixth grade. "If not, I'll bring my own carrots and vegetables."

A primary goal is to boost nutrition education and develop eating and exercise habits that will last a lifetime. Toward that end, the Gold Coast coalition called for the elimination of junk food and soft drinks on school campuses and the development of policies to promote physical education.

The coalition also called on officials to implement legislation by Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) that will double traffic fines in school zones in an effort to improve safety for children who walk and bike to school.

"Our children just don't walk enough or bike enough anymore," Jackson said. "Our intention is to encourage them to exercise and keep them safe while they do it."

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