A student purchases a brown sugar Pop-Tart from a vending machine in the hallway outside the school cafeteria. (Mike Hutmacher/AP)
Health and medicine reporter

You’ve just been appointed Minister of Fitness and Nutrition and handed the near-impossible task of addressing the next generation’s obesity epidemic, its lax approach to exercise and its poor eating habits.

Suddenly, you’re acutely aware of what you’re up against: fast food restaurants on every block. Video games in every home. Ad campaigns for fatty, sugary snacks.

If only there were a way to guarantee kids would get at least one nutritious meal each day, a place where you could control their schedules for, say, six or seven hours and ensure that they get some exercise. Hmm. Where would that be?

In fact, the people who run our schools at the local, state and federal levels have, in recent years, recognized the unique opportunity they have to influence the eating and exercise habits of children from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Across the United States, some schools are weighing and measuring students, teaching lifelong fitness habits instead of traditional ballgames, replacing high-fat foods with more healthful fare and trying to bring in fresh, locally grown food.

Vegetables in the vending machine. (Mike Kemp/GETTY IMAGES)

Is it working? It might be too soon to know. The first large-scale study of state efforts to curb junk food sales in schools was published just last week. It showed that strong regulations against junk food in schools might play a small role in combating childhood obesity if the rules are “comprehensive, contain strong language and are enacted across grade levels.”

If we don’t yet know how well we’re doing in this battle, we are at least figuring out how to develop our weapons. Last week I visited administrators for the Talbot County public schools, a small, Eastern Shore system that was among the earliest Maryland adopters of strategies aimed at improving child fitness and nutrition. They’ve been at it since 2006, before the state enacted a wellness law.

That was when they outfitted a class of third-graders with pedometers in an effort to reduce obesity in their four elementary schools by 50 percent in four years. The data are confidential, but Gail Phillips, the system’s safe schools specialist, said the goal was reached.

From there, Talbot pulled soda and sugary snacks from its 16 vending machines, overhauled its school lunch and breakfast menus (half the meals are now made from scratch) and began handing new teachers free memberships to the local YMCA. Current and retired teachers can use the Y at a discount.

Some teachers take their students on 10-minute walking breaks, and high school gym class is just as likely to focus on tai chi or weightlifting for women as basketball or football.

“I’ve seen a buy-in,” says Kelly Murdoch, a physical education teacher at White Marsh Elementary School in Trappe. More than measurable results, the schools want to provoke a culture shift.

“I think they are beginning to be . . . conscious of” the sugar and fat in some snack foods, and to understand the need to move throughout their lives, she says.

Staff members at the small, rural school also are beginning to bring more healthful snacks to meetings, and some are taking advantage of on-site Zumba and Pilates classes offered by the Y. “If kids know you’re just giving it lip service and you’re going to McDonald’s . . . they’re going to call you out on it in a heartbeat,” she says.

The road to a healthful environment is not always smooth. Kids accepted whole-grain spaghetti, leaner beef and pizza with low-fat and low-sodium cheese, said Bill Mengel, the school system’s food service manager. But they balked at the high school when he tried to replace Tater Tots with baked sweet potato bites and in the middle school when he replaced white bread with whole wheat.

“We got a big pushback for three days,” Mengel said, “and after that, they didn’t mind a bit.” Nevertheless, Mengel worked with his supplier to create an off-white whole-wheat bread instead of brown.

Parental habits have died hard as well. Some moms and dads continue to ignore the schools’ plea to replace cupcakes, doughnuts, chips, soda and pizzas at youngsters’ in-school celebrations with fresh fruit, vegetables, soft pretzels, animal crackers and juice.

The research hasn’t been conducted to determine whether these measures have had any effect at all. But anecdotally, “over the last three years, kids are paying much more attention to the kinds of things they’re eating, the kinds of things they’re doing,” said Tom Callahan, curriculum coordinator for physical education and health.

Teachers, principals and even food suppliers have bought in. “They realize it’s a huge market they can’t ignore,” Mengel said.

Schools can’t tackle every health problem that comes through the door. But with their unique access to our children, they do feel they can make inroads against obesity.

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll change a few lifestyles along the way.

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