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Obesity advice praised, derided

School officials say keeping students trim will be costly. Medical professionals say the guidelines are a start.

Published February 14, 2004

Nutrition classes and more physical education in schools. New housing developments that feature cycling and jogging trails. Bosses who give workers flex time for working out.

Oh, and parents, turn off the TV.

Those are among the suggestions from the Governor's Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic in a report delivered Friday to Gov. Jeb Bush and state legislative leaders, who have not yet acted on the recommendations.

But while the recommendations drew praise, they also drew immediate fire - for asking too much and for not doing enough.

"At least we're stepping forward and doing something other states aren't doing," said Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. "We're not really that happy with the results that came out."

The recommendations vary from low-tech common sense to elaborate new school advisory panels on nutrition and fitness. And while the task force encourages schools to find alternatives to soft drinks in vending machines, it didn't call for banning the practice.

"It doesn't make sense, because when kids want to eat something, they eat something," said Dr. Zachariah P. Zachariah, a cardiologist and chairman of the task force. "A student can eat two doughnuts and have more calories."

Instead, schools should offer healthier food and drinks in vending machines and educate children on healthy eating, Zachariah said.

"The most important thing is education," he said.

But the report does call for other action in schools. The task force recommends the state require each district to have an advisory panel on nutrition and another on physical fitness. School districts should have a formal nutrition curriculum and boost their physical education classes. And they should seek out business and charity support to help replace the money they bring in from vending machine contracts.

Many cash-strapped school districts have turned to contracts with soft drink companies, receiving millions in exchange for putting Coke or Pepsi into schools.

Some task force suggestions didn't sit well with Jane Gallucci, chairwoman of the Pinellas County School Board.

"I'm not sure how much more the schools are expected to do," she said. "Should we take them from birth and give them back at 18?"

Advisory panels sound nice, she said, but providing them with school staffers would cost money. And many schools have less physical education because they have eliminated class periods as a result of state funding cuts. Ditto on the school districts that have sought out vending contracts, she said.

"Why doesn't the state just do its part, and we wouldn't have to ask businesses that are already paying taxes" for money to replace vending contracts, she said.

Targeting obesity is important, Gallucci said, but state officials need to realize that the costs should be a "joint partnership."

Meanwhile, Fletcher, who testified to the task force, said the recommendations don't go far enough. Schools need to require that every child is physically active every day, he said.

"The schools have got to get out and force kids to do something," he said. "It's got to be stronger, it's got to be mandated that kids have some physical activity. ... We've just got to do this for the health of America."

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