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By Francis Koster, Ed.D.

One-third of America’s 55 million school children are either overweight or obese. The implications are downright frightening. Think about this: one in four American young people seeking to join the military are rejected because they are overweight or obese! 

Carrying extra pounds leads to early heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea. Children who are obese are much more likely to become obese — and chronically ill — adults. 

The extra medical costs to our country for overweight and obese patients alone averages out to $1,000 per year per American household — half of which is paid for by American taxpayers through Medicare, the VA health system, Medicaid and government employee health plans. This is not a “personal matter” — it impacts us all. And while some of those carrying extra pounds have an inherited or biological cause for weight gain which they have to struggle against all their lives, many others simply eat too much and exercise to little. 

Unlike terrorism, or issues with imported oil, this damage to our nation is not inflicted on us by outsiders. We are doing it to ourselves, and we can fix it ourselves.

Sugary drinks represent the largest source of added sugar in the diets of children in the United States. Just one can of soda contains the equivalent of 14 of those paper packets of sugar you put in your morning coffee. 

Start buying one soda per day from a vending machine at the start of your freshman year in high school, and by graduation you will have gained 48 pounds from the soda alone. (You might want to show this column to any young people you care about).

Next time you are walking behind a big behind at the county fair, note the drink that person is carrying. Chances are it is not water. 

One emerging way to provide healthier options for school children is through the latest generation vending machines that are equipped to provide healthy snacks, rather than just sugar-laden soda.

Adel-De Soto-Minburn Middle School in Adel, Iowa, offers students healthier snack options through touch-screen vending machines. The choices provided by this campus have become popular with the students, and the inclusion of vending machines that offer food and drinks other than high calorie, sugary options is a great way to encourage healthier diets. 

By using new technology that allows for a broad range of healthy food, the vendors can accommodate more health-conscious choices. The machine used in the Iowa school is a dual temperature machine that preserves fresh fruits and vegetables. Nutrition facts for the items can be viewed via the machine’s touch screen. This helps students learn the nutritional content of their food purchase.

Financing plans are available through the vendors, repaid out of the sales from the machine, so school systems’ lack of capital dollars is not a barrier.

As my colleague Mary Beth Dial discovered when preparing a longer story on this topic for The Optimistic Futurist website, vendors still like to sell candy and chips because of their long shelf life and low cost. This is one of those cases where the best profit interests of the vendor and the best health interests of the customer are not aligned. Still, the vendors must, in the long run, respond to consumer demand; if we demand fresh healthy snacks in vending machines, they will comply.

Obesity does not have to affect so many children in America. Efforts by citizens insisting on these new vending machines in appropriate public spaces tackle childhood obesity head on. By offering healthier food choices while educating children about nutritional values, we can help them begin to develop healthier eating habits that will allow them to grow into healthier adults with less risk of an early death — all while saving taxpayers money.

We can be optimistic about our future if we imitate proven success invented by others — it just takes the initiative and courage to adopt new behaviors, and to encourage others to do the same. I challenge you to begin — for the sake of our kids, our taxpayers and our country.

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