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[JUNE 1, 2004]  URBANA -- In high school health class, students learn the importance of a healthy diet. In the hallway outside of the classroom, they can purchase junk food from a vending machine. Rather than send students this mixed message, some schools are replacing the junk food in school vending machines with healthier choices, but not without opposition.

"The reason for removing pop and candy from the machines and the cafeteria was not to prevent students from consuming them. That is an individual family and student choice, and they can still bring it from home. However, as a school, we are choosing not to contribute to choices that can be harmful to our students," said Urbana High School principal John Woodward.

Along with freedom-of-choice accusations, Woodward has had to answer to student groups that have lost the revenue from vending machine sales and soft drink endorsements. Woodward's reply is, "Earning money does not justify selling certain products, especially if they could be harmful to some students."

Still, not all schools are willing to make the switch. "More than 20 percent of schools serve brand-name fast foods, often as part of the school lunch program funded by the USDA," says Rochelle Davis, executive director the Healthy Schools Campaign. "It's atrocious that we would peddle high-calorie, low-nutrition foods to our kids while overlooking an array of fresh produce and products produced right here in Illinois and the Midwest region."

Davis is working to meet the challenge of the 2002 Farm Bill, Section 4303, and its statement that institutions participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program should purchase local foods where practicable. Davis admits that right now it isn't practical, but she, along with other groups, is starting the process of educating and connecting farmers and small farm co-ops with interested school districts. 


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Robin Orr, University of Illinois Extension specialist, sees this as the first step toward a solution to the obesity problem that took decades to develop. "In the 1950s kids rode their bikes or walked to school," says Orr. "Now we have schools with circle drives for easy drop-off.  It took us a long time to get in this mess, and it's going to take us a long time to get out of it. We need to look at schools that have made healthy changes and been successful and model what they did."

Some schools that have already had success are in regions of the country like southern California with a climate conducive to providing fresh produce year-round. One school in Santa Monica has revitalized the school district's formerly lackluster salad bar system by providing more appealing, ready-to-eat foods like pre-sliced apples and strawberries.

The pilot program there began in 1997 and was rolled out to all 15 schools in the district in 2000. In the first year of the districtwide program, sales jumped from 30 to more than 100 salad bar meals a day.

That's exactly what Davis wants to see in Illinois. "We hope to get selected school districts to participate," she says. "It's all about building an infrastructure for providing healthy food choices to children."

For more information, visit

[University of Illinois news release]

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